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Explainer: The Biden Administration’s Announcement to Protect American Families  

On June 18, 2024, the Biden administration announced a new policy to safeguard American mixed-status families by opening the door for spouses of U.S. citizens to obtain green cards they are already eligible for but cannot easily access. The program will allow certain families to overcome the constant fear that their loved ones could be detained or deported, while protecting many thousands of Dreamers who have lived stateside since they were children.  

This explainer provides an overview of President Joe Biden’s executive actions to keep American families together.  

Need for Reform  

In the United States, noncitizen spouses of American citizens generally qualify for a green card under existing law. Yet in practice, many undocumented husbands and wives cannot access lawful permanent residence without leaving the U.S. first — a process that can trigger yearslong or indefinite bars restricting their return and reunification with family.  

These contradictory immigration provisions pose an impossible choice for mixed-status households: Either their loved ones can pursue legal status but risk a decade or longer wait outside the U.S., or they can remain stateside with the constant fear of deportation while enduring the challenges and barriers of living undocumented.  

Mechanics of the Program  

The Biden administration’s June 18 executive actions attempt to remedy this legal paradox for certain American families that include an undocumented, long-term resident of the U.S. Through a newly announced Department of Homeland Security (DHS) process, undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens who have been in the U.S. for a decade or longer will be able to apply for a legal avenue to eventually adjust their immigration status and become lawful permanent residents without ever leaving the U.S.  

To be eligible, these undocumented spouses must:  

  • Be in the U.S. without having been admitted or paroled by federal officials; 
  • Have remained stateside for at least a decade by June 17, 2024;  
  • Be legally married to an American citizen as of June 17, 2024;  
  • Not have any disqualifying criminal history;  
  • Not be deemed a threat to national security or public safety; and 
  • Deserve a favorable exercise of discretion.  

The program is expected to use the parole in place authority — previously employed mostly to support military families — so that approved applicants can live and work legally in the U.S. for up to three years while they pursue their green cards. Kids and young adults under 21 years old who are the stepchildren of U.S. citizens and whose undocumented parents may be eligible for the program could also qualify for the process.  

Application Details 

The program is not yet open. DHS said it anticipates launching the application — which will involve filing a form with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), providing supporting documentation, paying a fee, and meriting a favorable exercise of discretion on a case-by-case basis — later in the summer.  

Adjudicators “will take into consideration the potential requestor’s previous immigration history, criminal history, the results of background checks and national security and public safety vetting, and any other relevant information available to or requested by USCIS,” DHS said. More details on eligibility and processing will be provided in a Federal Register notice “in the near term,” the department added.  

It remains to be seen whether the new program will be subject to a legal challenge

Who Will Benefit?  

The policy change is expected to provide access to a much-needed legal pathway for around 500,000 undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens, including about 245,000 Dreamers who came to the U.S. as minors. On average, eligible spouses have been living in and contributing to the country for 23 years.  

Roughly 50,000 noncitizen children of qualified parents may also be able to access the process. And, including the U.S. citizens who are part of affected mixed-status families, around 2 million U.S. residents are set to benefit.  

The policy also has major implications for the U.S. public in general. Once long-term undocumented family members are able to access green cards, they will likely also be eligible to naturalize within years. As U.S. citizens, they could contribute an additional $6.6 billion to the American economy and pay $2.6 billion more in taxes, according to an analysis by FWD.us.  

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