‘My feet have not hit the ground yet’: Why Biden’s words stunned this New Jersey woman

CNN — 

In love, married and pregnant, Ashley DeAzevedo faced an impossible choice she never expected.

If her husband, an undocumented immigrant from Brazil, wanted to become a US citizen, he’d have to leave the country for a decade.

It’s been more than 11 years since an immigration attorney delivered the devastating news, but she can still feel its sting.

“I just remember the conversation feeling like somebody took the air out of my lungs. Because I was not expecting that. And neither was he,” DeAzevedo says.

On Tuesday, the 38-year-old New Jersey hair salon owner was starting to feel like she could breathe again. DeAzevedo sat in the second row of an event at the White House and cheered as President Biden announced a new policy that aims to help her family and about a half million others in a similar situation. The measure allows certain undocumented spouses and children of US citizens to apply for lawful permanent residency without leaving the country.

“This is really significant,” said Julia Gelatt, associate director of the US program at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. “It’s removing a barrier that’s prevented hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants from obtaining that green card that they’re otherwise eligible for.”

The election-year announcement is already drawing high praise from Democrats and fierce criticism from Republicans.

DeAzevedo, president of American Families United, an organization that advocates for mixed-status families, says it shouldn’t be about politics, but about doing what’s right. She spoke with CNN this week before and after Biden’s announcement, sharing how living in the shadows has affected her, her husband and their 11-year-old son, and what this new policy could mean for them and many others. Excerpts from those conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

How are you feeling?

Wow, like my feet have not hit the ground yet. Today was just one of the wildest in my life, to go to the White House for the first time, and to be there when the president made such a historic announcement. I mean, I’m not an emotional person generally. I don’t cry a lot. But it was very hard for me to hold my emotions. I was a sobbing, crying mess listening to him speak, because he was telling my story. He was speaking about my family and all the families of the people that I love and care about.

I think a lot of people assume that when an undocumented immigrant marries a US citizen, there’s an easy path to legalize their status.

Yeah. That is not the case.

When did you first realize that?

We were newly married at the time. I was pregnant. I knew my husband didn’t have status in the United States. But I figured, let me just find a lawyer. So we met with her. And she said, “Well, here comes the bad news. I can’t do anything to help you guys. Your husband would have to leave the country for 10 years.”

(After meeting with the attorney), we were like, well, what are we going to do? I can’t move to Brazil. I have my business here. I have my family here. And I obviously didn’t want to raise a child without my husband.

So, we made the decision to stay here in the shadows, hoping that something would change. It’s not an easy lifestyle. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Ashley DeAzevedo and her husband met on the train heading to a festival in New York City. This photo was taken when they first started dating.

How have your daily lives been shaped by this situation?

It’s frustrating because my husband can’t ever work to his full ability. It’s all just side jobs and whatever. We had to not really live up to what we could potentially. I had to qualify for a mortgage all by myself because he couldn’t be on it with me. He can’t get life insurance. He can’t get health insurance.

There’s just so many different, nuanced, stupid, stupid things that he’s excluded from. It feels like being a second-class citizen. It’s like you live here and you pay taxes, but you can’t be treated like a human being like everyone else around you. It just feels so cruel.

He hasn’t seen his parents in 18 years. His dad passed away, and he was never able to go back and see him. I think people forget the human toll. You’re never going to be able to get that moment back. He’s never going to be able to give his dad one last hug.

Before you met your husband and went through all of this alongside him, was this something that was on your radar at all?

Not really. I had some friends in the Brazilian community, so I kind of had an idea, but I never really understood. For me, it just wasn’t really important, because on one side of my family, we’ve been here since the Revolutionary War. And on the other side, my mom’s side of the family, I’m a third-generation American with ancestors from Italy who came over through Ellis Island. The immigrant story is something that’s very rich in my family. It just never crossed my mind that there would be this ridiculous hurdle for somebody if they’re married to an American.

It just never crossed my mind that there would be this ridiculous hurdle for somebody if they’re married to an American.

Ashley DeAzevedo, president of American Families United

Do you find yourself often meeting people that don’t realize that this is the reality that a lot of families are living in? What do you tell them?

It’s not something I share regularly. It’s not like I wear a badge that’s like, “my husband’s, undocumented.” But if I hear people speaking disparagingly about immigrants, I can’t help myself but say, “you don’t know the whole story. Don’t ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant’ with me. Because my husband, who you love spending time with and you think is such a great human, is part of this group of people.” When I explain it to people, it blows their mind.

What is the significance of this new measure for you and your family?

I think the devil is in the details, and it’s really going to matter exactly how they implement the policy.

What was announced today was the nuts and bolts, you know, the intention, the directive, and the basic framework, but no real, significant details on implementation.

For my husband, it really could be the piece that unlocks his green card pathway that he does have, it just is only available to him after 10 years outside the country. If that were the case, then he could move forward onto his green card and eventually one day become a citizen.

That would give him the ability to see his mom again for the first time in 18 years. It would give my son the ability to travel with his dad, to go meet his grandma. He’s never met her before. It would just mean a lot of things — peace of mind, never worrying after my husband gets pulled over. It’s just terrifying. If he’s late or he doesn’t answer his phone, your mind automatically goes to the worst place.

It would just mean a lot of things — peace of mind, never worrying after my husband gets pulled over. It’s just terrifying. If he’s late or he doesn’t answer his phone, your mind automatically goes to the worst place.

Ashley DeAzevedo, president of American Families United, on what the Biden administration's immigration policy announcement means for her family

And it sounds like having a work permit would be a game changer?

Yeah, a total game changer.

Biden announced the new immigration policy at an event celebrating the 12th anniversary of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, better known as DACA. A crowd of supporters packed the East Room of the White House for the occasion.

You first became more politically involved in the time of family separations during the Trump administration. Do you worry that, as significant as a policy like this is, it’s something that a future administration could undo?

I’m kind of conflicted with that, because there are always concerns. I’m sure there are going to be legal challenges.

But during the pandemic when the initial CARES Act funding excluded mixed-status families, Republican senators like Marco Rubio and John Cornyn really came to our aid and fought for that to be made right and retroactive, so that when the next round of funding came out, it covered our families as well, not our spouses, but it made sure US citizens and their children were able to collect those funds.

So knowing that Republicans fought through this before, and Donald Trump actually is the one who agreed and signed it into law, leads me to believe that maybe the “party of family values” might see that this isn’t a fair situation. And Donald Trump’s wife is an immigrant. He knows the process. He gets it. He’s fallen in love with somebody from a different country as well. So he knows better than anybody that our families should be treated the same as everyone else.

Already Republican leadership is slamming this new policy as a “mass amnesty scheme.” What’s your response to that?

It’s disappointing. I hope they’ll reconsider their position on that. Not only because their candidate for president is married to an immigrant who was able to benefit from the spousal green card pathway, but also, you know, have a little compassion and see that we’re American families. My family goes back to the Revolutionary War here, and the thought that my husband wouldn’t be welcome in this country is just outrageous.

Ashley DeAzevedo speaks outside the US Capitol in September. She first got involved with American Families United during the Trump administration. Now she’s the organization’s president.

Are there any questions that you have right now about what’s next? What’s on your mind right now as you think of the months to come?

Well, all of the partners we’ve been advocating with and the people we’ve been working with inside government, we have a lot of conversations coming up. I want to make sure that my members are covered — not only those that are here in the US. I think a really important piece to tell of this story is the Americans that went through the process, found themselves outside of the country for an interview and were barred from returning if they got bad legal advice or something like that. There are families that are separated right now that are really, really suffering. And we need to make sure that there is relief for them as well. Today was one step in the right direction, like a down payment on a promise, and there’s a lot of work ahead.

Did your husband and your son come with you to the White House?

My son and my mom came with me. My husband, because of policy, wasn’t able to come to the White House. He is here in DC, though, and he was able to celebrate.

He was watching it live. For him, it’s surreal. You know, he’s lived this reality where again, he hasn’t seen his mom for 18 years. His dad passed away since he left Brazil. If he ever gets to return, he’s going to be there and his dad won’t be there. So today was the first time that he really felt like there was a glimmer of hope for some sense of normalcy for him.

CNN’s Michael Williams contributed to this report.