President Biden Offers Some Migrants a Pathway to Citizenship

By: May Man Published: Jun 19, 2024

A new policy announced by the Biden administration on Tuesday will provide approximately half a million immigrants, who are married to American citizens but lack legal status, with a pathway to citizenship for themselves and their children.

This is one of President Joe Biden’s most comprehensive immigration policies, heavily advocated for by migrant support groups.

Removing Complexities

Under U.S. immigration law, an American citizen marrying a non-citizen living in the U.S. could typically facilitate their spouse’s application for permanent residence (a green card). However, if the spouse had been residing in the U.S. illegally for an extended period, the process became much more complex.

top view of US immigration document with US flag on the left side

They often had to leave the U.S. and apply from their home country, potentially facing a three to ten-year ban depending on their period of unauthorized stay.

Lengthy Wait Times

Although they could seek a waiver to shorten this wait, the waiver process averaged about three and a half years and required applying at a consulate, where delays could be lengthy.

A white and black analog clock against a white wall. The second hand is red and the hour and minute hands are black. The time is 10:10.

Source: Ocean Ng/Unsplash

“There is the risk of prolonged separation especially if things go wrong,” said Elizabeth Taufa, policy attorney and strategist for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Faced with the risk of being separated from their families for a long and uncertain process, many chose to remain in the shadows.

No Blanket Approval

The new policy allows many undocumented spouses to apply for lawful permanent residence without leaving the U.S., providing a path to citizenship.

A group of people seen from behind, raising their right hands and holding small American flags during a citizenship oath ceremony

Source: K E/Unsplash

However, it is not a blanket approval. Eligibility requirements include having lived in the U.S. for at least 10 years, posing no security threat, and having been married by June 17, 2024.

Thorough Vetting Process

Applicants must apply to the Department of Homeland Security, which will evaluate each application individually. The immigrant spouses must not have been previously admitted or paroled into the country.

Logo for the US Department of Homeland Security atop an American flag

Source: Homeland Security

Applicants will undergo thorough vetting for their immigration and criminal histories, as well as potential fraud. Once approved, they will have three years to apply for permanent residency and can receive work authorization for up to three years.

1.1 Million Undocumented Immigrants

According to, an immigration advocacy organization, about 1.1 million undocumented immigrants are married to American citizens.

A close-up of a white paper about immigration that is on the road.

Source: Metin Ozer/Unsplash

The administration estimates that roughly half of them, around 500,000, along with about 50,000 of their children, could be eligible for this program.


Biden Administration’s Approach

On average, these spouses have lived in the U.S. for over two decades, and a senior administration official noted that most beneficiaries are expected to be from Mexico.

President Joe Biden in front of a podium outside speaking into a microphone.

Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The Biden administration has adopted a two-pronged approach to immigration and border security over the past year and a half.


Stricter Criteria for Asylum Seekers

On one hand, Biden has made it more challenging to qualify for asylum at the southern border and has increased the removal of those who do not qualify.

President Joe Biden pointing in 2024.

Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Immigration advocates condemned Biden’s recent decision to limit asylum processing once daily arrivals at the southern border reached a certain threshold.


Admitting More People

Conversely, the administration has implemented measures to admit more people into the country. A notable example is a program established last year that allows people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela to come to the U.S. if they have a financial sponsor, pass a background check, and fly into a U.S. airport.

Terminal A of Logan Airport at night

Source: Alan Myles NYC, Wikimedia

By the end of April, 434,800 people had entered the U.S. through this program from these four countries. Advocates have been urging the administration to further support immigrants who have lived in the U.S. illegally for decades.



Apart from the new policy for migrant spouses, the administration has announced changes to help participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program more easily qualify for established work visas.

Immigration at JFK with people standing in line

Source: Wikimedia

In 2012, the Obama administration provided deportation protections and temporary work permits to individuals brought illegally to the U.S. as children by their parents, known as “Dreamers,” many of whom are now parents themselves.


Work Visas for Dreamers

Companies employing DACA recipients can apply for work visas for them, which offer greater stability and a pathway to permanent residency, according to Dan Berger, an immigration fellow at Cornell Law School and co-founder of Path2Papers, an organization aiding Dreamers in pursuing work visas and permanent residency.

A U.S. employment authorization card against an American flag

Source: iStock

However, obtaining a work visa requires DACA recipients to travel abroad, apply, and secure a waiver to re-enter the U.S. Berger pointed out that the waiver process is slow and lacks clear guidance, discouraging employers and DACA recipients from attempting it. “Having clear guidance and clear expectation is really helpful,” he said.


USCIS to Process Applications

The Department of Homeland Security must develop guidelines for the spousal program, which will be implemented by the end of summer, President Joe Biden announced during a ceremony on Tuesday.

The entrance sign of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services building, featuring the department's seal

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), part of the Department of Homeland Security, will handle the application processing. USCIS has historically struggled with funding while trying to reduce backlogs and wait times. Republicans and immigration opponents have fiercely criticized the proposal, and legal challenges are almost certain to follow in an attempt to block it.