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How a family's life can change under Biden's new immigration program for spouses of US citizens

Laura Rodríguez Presa, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO -- Before Michael Whitley met Giselle Rodriguez, he didn’t know much about the country’s immigration system, much less about the lives of millions of people living in the country illegally.

But his life, Whitley said, completely changed after falling in love with Rodriguez during their teenage years and finding out she was in the U.S. without legal permission.

When they got married in 2019, he vowed to support his wife through it all, even if that meant living in fear of family separation because the mother of their two children could be deported any day. Though Whitley attempted to fix his wife’s status, current federal policies require that Rodriguez leave the country for Mexico for at least 10 years as a penalty before deciding on her case.

So the couple opted to wait, hopeful that one day federal policies would change in their favor and fight to keep their family together.

And they did.

Rodriguez, now living in Bolingbrook, Illinois, is one of an estimated 500,000 immigrants living in the country without authorization who could gain a pathway to citizenship through President Joe Biden’s move to allow certain undocumented immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens to apply for permanent residency. Under the new regulations, some Deferred Action for Child Arrivals beneficiaries and other young immigrants could more easily qualify for long-established work visas.

The announcement comes just weeks after the Illinois General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Biden to use his executive power to extend work permits to long-term immigrants living without authorization in Illinois — and also weeks after harsh criticism from Democratic leaders and advocates over Biden’s executive order to halt asylum-seekers at the southern border as the presidential election looms.

Though some local stakeholders applaud Biden’s offer to provide relief to hundreds of thousands of such immigrants, they pledge their commitment to continue pushing their agenda to encourage the Biden administration to provide much more expansive and comprehensive immigration reform.

However, some Republican leaders challenged the state resolution. Others consider Biden’s move an “amnesty.”

“This proves that the president has the power to change the lives of millions of other people. This proves that he can create policies to provide work permits for all, to benefit many more workers,” said Erendira Rendon, vice president of immigrant justice for The Resurrection Project.

While the vast majority of the immigrants here illegally won’t benefit from the new executive order, Rendon said she takes this step as a win for now.

“This should definitely encourage and inspire us, and the undocumented community to keep speaking up and holding the administration accountable,” Rendon said.

She credits Chicago and Illinois political, business and faith leaders for their efforts to push the administration to use its existing parole program to provide relief to immigrants. Earlier last year, a number of community stakeholders, including Rendon, came together to find ways to uplift the voices of long-term undocumented workers who felt forgotten after Biden offered work permits and temporary protected status to some of the recent migrants, citing the significant economic benefit of such a move amid prolonged workforce shortages that are stymieing economic growth.

In nearly two years, more than 43,000 migrants mostly from Venezuela have arrived in Chicago from the southern U.S. border. Mayor Brandon Johnson, who has been managing the migrant crisis since being elected in 2023, supported Biden’s efforts to expand legal protections to more immigrant spouses.

“Strong families make strong communities, and by taking this action, the President is making it clear that he believes — as do I — in the importance of keeping families together,” Johnson said in a statement. “We continue to call on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform to create a pathway to citizenship for the millions of hard-working people who, for far too long, have been disenfranchised.”

The American Business Immigration Coalition, with headquarters in Chicago, held more than 150 events in various states, working closely with community organizations, Latino elected officials, Republicans, affected families, business leaders, lawmakers and faith leaders to urge action on this issue.

“President Biden’s action to extend work permits for long-term immigrant spouses is morally right, economically sound, and politically smart,” said Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition. “We thank him for taking this important step to support American families, protecting their love and ability to live together.”

Nearly 10.6 million U.S. citizens live in mixed-status households in the country, and most are of Mexican descent. Long-term immigrants here without authorization have lived on average for 15 years in the country, working, paying taxes and raising American children. One child out of every 10 in Illinois has an undocumented parent, according to FWD.us, a bipartisan political organization. Seven percent of Illinois’ U.S. citizens live with at least one person who is here without legal permission.

U.S. Rep. Delia Ramírez, a Democrat from Chicago, is the only member of Congress in a mixed-status family, she said. So “the work to keep families and communities together is deeply personal. I am grateful for the President’s commitment to protect families like mine,” she said in a statement.

“While we hoped for more expansive action, today’s announcement is significant,” Ramirez said.

 

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, another Democrat from Chicago, said the new program could significantly affect his district. Like Ramirez, he also vowed to continue pressuring the administration to deliver comprehensive immigration reform.

“Providing relief and peace of mind to mixed-status families and to the 45,000 DACA recipients in Illinois is a step in the right direction but we cannot stop here,” Garcia told the Tribune.

But while Democrats applauded Biden, Republican Donald Trump’s campaign accused the incumbent president of creating “another invitation for illegal immigration.”

“Biden only cares about one thing — power — and that’s why he is giving mass amnesty and citizenship to hundreds of thousands of illegals who he knows will ultimately vote for him and the Open Border Democrat Party,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt told The Associated Press.

While Whitley and his wife are hopeful, they are also skeptical. After all, the couple has had countless consultations with immigration lawyers over the years that led them nowhere, he said. Even though Rodriguez was brought to the country from Mexico in 2009, when she was 12 years old, there’s no way of fixing her status without leaving the country.

“We tried doing things the right way, but the system sets you up for failure,” said Whitley, a former college football player and now a football coach, from a rural town in Louisiana. “My wife was brought here as a child and has been doing everything right. Yet, there was no way to win the game.”

Marrying a U.S. citizen generally provides a pathway to citizenship, but people who crossed the southern border illegally — rather than arriving in the country with a visa — must return to their home countries to complete the process for a green card, which can take several years.

Under Biden’s new program, families may remain in the country while they pursue legal status.

That means that Rodriguez may not need to leave her family while her case is being processed. However, the two said they need more details before moving forward with an application.

Whitley and Rodriguez have two young children and one more on the way. Despite Rodriguez’s immigration status, the mother earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Northeastern University in 2019, followed by a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 2020.

Inspired by her mother’s struggle in the workplace after experiencing wage theft and abuse due to her immigration status, Rodriguez began working as an independent contractor for a nonprofit organization doing outreach about workers rights and immigrant rights.

Just last year, Rodriguez, with the help of her husband, founded her own nonprofit, Illinois Workers in Action, with the mission to empower immigrant workers through education, organizing and policy.

“I do as much as I can to fight for her and for the millions of other people living in fear, victims of a broken system,” said Whitley. “I can’t imagine my life without Giselle. I love who she is.”

Under Biden’s new policy, an immigrant must have lived in the United States for 10 years as of June 17 and be married to a U.S. citizen. If a qualifying immigrant’s application is approved, he or she would have three years to apply for a green card and receive a temporary work permit, shielded from deportation in the meantime.

About 50,000 noncitizen children with parents who are married to U.S. citizens could also potentially qualify for the process. There is no requirement on how long the couple must have been married, but no one becomes eligible after June 17. That means immigrants who reach that 10-year mark after June 17 will not qualify for the program.

Rendon said that TRP is “ready and willing” to help process petitions to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from the move. She also warned immigrants of potential scams.

“We urge community members who believe they may be eligible to seek ethical, legal advice,” Random said.

Whitley considered the move a smart one from the president now that elections are around the corner. The next step in their agenda, advocates said, is going to the polls in November.

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©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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