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Biden's executive actions could provide relief to many undocumented people. But questions remain

President Joe Biden waves on stage
Charlie Leight/ASU News
President Joe Biden speaks in Tempe on Sept. 28, 2023.

Tens of thousands of undocumented people living in the U.S. could be eligible for permanent residency one day, under a new executive order announced by the Biden administration.

Under the new rule, announced Tuesday, undocumented people who are married to U.S. citizens and have been in the U.S. for at least 10 years can apply for parole to stay here, and eventually apply for U.S. citizenship.

DHS estimates there are roughly 500,000 people who could be eligible for the relief, many of whom have been in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Roughly 15,000 undocumented people married to U.S. citizens in Arizona could qualify for the program, according to a count by the group FWS.us.

Current law requires undocumented people to leave the U.S. and go to their home countries to apply to get a new path to permanent residency as a spouse of a U.S. citizen. The process can result in a multi-year or permanent ban from re-entering the U.S. under current law.

That’s what happened to Bill De La Rosa’s mom years ago. She’s a Mexican citizen who, although married to his U.S. citizen dad, spent years living undocumented in Arizona.

“Had this order been authorized in 2009, my family would have benefitted from this,” he said. “When they went through the legal process, and my mom went to the consulate in Juarez, she effectively ran into a brick wall, and she was barred for 10 years.”

De La Rosa’s mother gained permanent residency and the family was finally reunited this year in Nogales after more than 14 years apart.

“It is a catch-22, by going through the legal process, families are essentially separated. And so what this executive order does, is basically bypass this catch-22,” he said. “We’re talking about keeping families together, we’re talking about preventing children from being separated from their parents.”

He says he’s happy other families won’t have to wait so long.

That relief is one of the more anticipated portions of the new announcement. But another portion of the order expands and streamlines the work authorization for some undocumented people. A White House official says the program is a coordination between the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department, details are still being worked out. But the new rule could help undocumented people like those who have DACA — and those who graduated from U.S. universities — apply for a broader set of employment-based visas, without having to leave the U.S.

Lorenzo Sierra, a former Arizona legislator for the west Phoenix area, says that could encourage more "Dreamers" to stay in Arizona and join the economy.

“You know, when you look at things like the CHIPS Act and Infrastructure Act, those things have a huge impact on Arizona, and we need that work force to be able to put those things into fruition,” he said.

Reyna Montoya
Diego Lozano/ALIENTO
editorial | contributor
Reyna Montoya

The Obama-era DACA program gives work permits and temporary protection from deportation to some undocumented people brought to the U.S. as kids. A ballot measure passed in 2022 also allows DACA recipients in Arizona to apply for state scholarships and get in-state tuition. Reyna Montoya — a long-time Phoenix resident and DACA recipient — says this order feels like a relief, especially as the process to renew aspects of DACA, like the two-year work permit, are backed up at Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“But at the same time, I can feel my heart beating really fast, because at the end of the day, I have to see the details, as they say, the devil is in the details, and we’re not sure if this would lead to more permanency,” she said. “Being a DACA recipient is so stressful, I mean, it’s been 12 years of uncertainty, but more recently, since 2017, there has been ongoing litigation, that, we don’t know where our footing is in the United States,” she said.

New DACA applicants have been barred for years because of ongoing litigation. A White House official said guidance on how the new visa process will work is expected in the coming weeks.

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.
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