Immigrant families rejoice over Biden's expansive move toward citizenship, while some are left out

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants had reason to rejoice when President Joe Biden unveiled a highly expansive plan to extend legal status to spouses of U.S. citizens but, inevitably, some were left out

HOUSTON (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of immigrants had reason to rejoice when President Joe Biden unveiled a highly expansive plan to extend legal status to spouses of U.S. citizens but, inevitably, some were left out.

Claudia Zúniga, 35, married in 2017, or 10 years after her husband came to the United States. He moved to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, after they wed, knowing that, by law, he had to live outside the country for years to gain legal status. “Our lives took a 180-degree turn,” she said.

Biden announced Tuesday that his administration will, in coming months, allow U.S. citizens' spouses without legal status to apply for permanent residency and eventually citizenship without having to first depart the country for up to 10 years. About 500,000 immigrants may benefit, according to senior administration officials.

To qualify, an immigrant must have lived in the United States for 10 years and be married to a U.S. citizen, both as of Monday. Zúniga's husband is ineligible because he wasn't in the United States.

“Imagine, it would be a dream come true,” said Zúniga, who works part time in her father's transportation business in Houston. “My husband could be with us. We could focus on the well-being of our children.”

Every immigration benefit — even those as sweeping as Biden's election-year offer — has a cutoff date and other eligibility requirements. In September, the Democratic president expanded temporary status for nearly 500,000 Venezuelans who were living in the United States on July 31, 2023. Those who had arrived a day later were out of luck.

The Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has shielded from deportation hundreds of thousands of people who came to the United States as young children and is popularly known as DACA, required applicants be in the United States on June 15, 2012, and continuously for the previous five years.

About 1.1 million spouses who are in the country illegally are married to U.S. citizens, according to advocacy group, meaning hundreds of thousands won't qualify because they were in the United States for less than 10 years.

Immigration advocates were generally thrilled with the scope of Tuesday's announcement, just as Biden's critics called it a horribly misguided giveaway.

Angelica Martinez, 36, wiped away tears as she sat next to her children, ages 14 and 6, and watched Biden's announcement at the Houston office of FIEL, an immigrant advocacy group. A U.S. citizen since 2013, she described a flood of emotions, including regret that her husband couldn't travel to Mexico when his mother died five years ago.

“Sadness, joy all at the same time," said Martinez, whose husband arrived in Houston 18 years ago.

Brenda Valle of Los Angeles, whose husband has been a U.S. citizen since 2001 and, like her, was born in Mexico, renews her DACA permit every two years. “We can start planning more long-term, for the future, instead of what we can do for the next two years,” she said.

Magdalena Gutiérrez of Chicago, who has been married to a U.S. citizen for 22 years and has three daughters who are U.S. citizens, said she had “a little more hope” after Biden’s announcement. Gutiérrez, 43, is eager to travel more across the United States without fearing an encounter with law enforcement that could lead to her being deported.

Allyson Batista, a retired Philadelphia teacher and U.S. citizen, who married her Brazilian husband 20 years ago, recalled being told by lawyer that he could leave the country for 10 years or “remain in the shadows and wait for a change in the law.”

“Initially, when we got married, I was naive and thought, ‘OK, but I’m American. This isn’t going to be a problem. We’re going to fix this,’” Batista said. “I learned very early on that we were facing a pretty dire circumstance and that there would be no way for us to move forward in an immigration process successfully.”

The couple raised three children who are pursuing higher education. Batista is waiting for the details of how her husband can apply for a green card.

“I’m hopeful,” Batista said. “The next 60 days will really tell. But, obviously more than thrilled because every step forward is a step towards a final resolution for all kinds of immigrant families.”

About 50,000 noncitizen children with parents who are married to a U.S. citizen could also potentially qualify, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. Biden also announced new regulations that will allow some DACA beneficiaries and other young immigrants to more easily qualify for long-established work visas.


This story has been corrected to show Batista’s husband is Brazilian, not Mexican.


Gonzalez reported from McAllen, Texas. Associated Press writers Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles; Melissa Perez Winder in Chicago; and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed.

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