Americans Push Biden to Help Their Undocumented Spouses


The White House is weighing relief for immigrants who crossed the border unlawfully but are eligible for green cards through marriage to U.S. citizens.

Published June 10, 2024Updated June 11, 2024, 4:01 p.m. ET

When Ashley de Azevedo married in 2012, she knew that her U.S. citizenship would make her husband, an immigrant from Brazil, eligible for a green card. What she didn’t realize was that to obtain permanent residency, he would need to return to Brazil for 10 years because he had entered the United States illegally.

“It was a devastating reality,” Ms. Azevedo, 38 said. “I was pregnant, and he would miss out on years of our child’s life.”

So her husband, Sergio de Azevedo, stayed in the United States, vulnerable to deportation but with his wife and his son, who’s 12.

Now, a policy under consideration by the Biden administration could provide Mr. Azevedo and other undocumented spouses with a path to permanent residency that would not force them to leave the United States.

Calls for such a move have been growing in some quarters and could give President Biden a political boost in battleground states with large immigrant populations. But the idea is drawing sharp criticism from some Republicans and immigration hawks, who regard it as an abuse of executive authority.

Word of the proposal came just days after the administration took long-expected action to make it much harder to seek asylum, which had become an all but certain path for remaining in the United States and helped drive record levels of migration in recent years.

With the presidential election just five months away, the White House is trying to address broad discontent over the surge in migrants while trying to allay concerns from key Democratic constituencies over the administration’s tougher line on immigration.

The United States provides a straightforward path to a green card and citizenship for immigrants who enter the country lawfully and end up marrying an American. But as part of a crackdown on illegal immigration nearly three decades ago, Congress made it more difficult to obtain a green card through marriage for people who crossed the border without a visa, as Mr. Azevedo did.


In almost all cases, these undocumented immigrants must return to their home countries and remain there for years to complete the permanent residency process, and that has led many to instead remain in the United States and risk deportation.

About five million Americans are either spouses or adult children of undocumented immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute, and some, including Ms. Azevedo, have become increasingly vocal in demanding changes for their loved ones.

A new policy could benefit about 1.1 million undocumented people and would have a particularly big impact in swing states, including Nevada, Arizona and Georgia. In each of those states, there are more than 100,000 registered voters in “mixed-status” households, according to the American Immigration Business Coalition, which represents hundreds of companies and supports the proposed policy change.

The president would exercise his authority to grant the undocumented spouses “parole in place,” a designation that would permit them to remain in the country, work legally and gain access to a pathway to permanent residency.

It would be the most expansive relief accorded to undocumented immigrants since Congress passed a law in 1986 that granted amnesty to 2.7 million unlawful residents.


And it would come 12 years after President Barack Obama used his executive authority to create DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that has shielded hundreds of thousands of young adults brought unlawfully to the United States as children from deportation and grants them work permits.

Recent polls have found swelling support for Mr. Trump among Latino voters. Some of them have been irked by Mr. Biden’s recent initiatives granting work permits to migrants who recently crossed the border even as people who have lived in the United States for decades without work authorization continue to wait for Congress to pass immigration reform.

Several bills to address the plight of spouses of U.S. citizens, introduced in recent years with bipartisan support, have failed to advance.

Last month, Representatives Tom Suozzi, a New York Democrat, and Brian Fitzpatrick, a Pennsylvania Republican, sent President Biden a letter urging him to use his authority to remedy the situation.

“This is a no-brainer: It’s good policy and good politics,” Mr. Suozzi said in an interview on Monday.


With their members facing a chronic labor shortage, several national business groups have been pushing in recent months for Mr. Biden to allow some segments of the undocumented population to work legally.

“A solution for undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens is an obvious place to start, because our broken immigration system has been stacked against them for decades,” said Rebecca Shi, executive director the American Business Immigration Coalition.

Critics of the proposal said that Mr. Biden would be running afoul of the intent of immigration parole.

“This is just another example of the president abusing parole authority to enable people to obtain an immigration benefit that Congress has not authorized,” said Robert Law, who was policy chief at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services during the Trump administration.

“It’s waving a magic wand to give the alien a green card,” said Mr. Law, an immigration expert at the America First Policy Institute, a conservative think tank.

Since 2010, undocumented spouses of Americans in the military have been eligible for similar relief.

“For military families, this measure has been transformative,” said Margaret Stock, an immigration lawyer and a retired Army lieutenant colonel who advocated for the policy during her time in the military. “People don’t have to live in fear anymore, and they can get their green cards without waiting years and spending thousands of dollars.”

Congress has supported the use of parole in place for military families. But if the administration broadened the relief, the policy would almost certainly face legal challenges. A future administration could also revoke the policy.

Mr. Azevedo, 36, left his small town in Brazil in 2006 and headed for the United States hoping to work and save some money. He planned to return to his family after a few years.

When Ms. Azevedo met him in 2010, he regaled her with stories of his large extended family.

“I was a Jersey Shore girl — Sergio was from the farmland in Brazil,” she recalled. “Somehow we hit it off.”

Their friendship flourished into a romance, and they were engaged in 2011.

Ms. Azevedo assumed that being American would allow her to quickly adjust her husband’s undocumented status. On her mother’s side, she was descended from Italian immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island, and on her father’s side, she had ancestors who had fought in the Revolutionary War, she said.

After a lawyer told them that Mr. Azevedo would have to leave the country for 10 years to get a green card, they felt trapped.

Without a Social Security number, Mr. Azevedo could not join his wife in applying for a mortgage. They avoided traveling long distances so they could minimize the risk of encountering immigration enforcement personnel. And when Mr. Azevedo’s father passed away in Brazil, he did not attend his funeral.

A few years ago, Ms. Azevedo found camaraderie with other spouses of undocumented immigrants when she joined the organization American Families United.

“I hadn’t realized how many people were being impacted,” she said.

She began traveling from her home in New Jersey to Capitol Hill to educate members of Congress about the challenge that families like hers faced.

“You have to live your life, keep pushing and hope this changes,” said Ms. Azevedo, who is now president of American Families United.

“Until I hear it out of the president’s mouth, I am holding my breath,” she said of the policy change under consideration. “There can always be an off ramp.”

Miriam Jordan reports from a grass roots perspective on immigrants and their impact on the demographics, society and economy of the United States. More about Miriam Jordan

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