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How migrant rights advocates are reacting to new order on undocumented spouses

A woman takes the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at the district office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Newark, N.J.
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A woman takes the oath of allegiance during a naturalization ceremony at the district office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Newark, N.J.

President Joe Biden made a major announcement on the immigration front yesterday, taking action that could provide eventual citizenship to half a million people living in the country without legal status. It comes on the heels of aggressive new asylum restrictions Biden put in place at the border just a few weeks ago that outraged many Democrats and immigrant rights advocates.

The administration will allow certain undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens to apply for permanent residency – and eventually citizenship. But, there are some specific qualifications: An immigrant has to have lived in the country for 10 years as of Monday. So, no one could get married now and qualify for the program. The program could also apply to about 50,000 undocumented children of parents who are married to U.S. citizens.

Biden made the announcement Tuesday at the White House at an event commemorating the 12th anniversary of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

Mario Montoya is a DACA recipient and a research analyst with immigrant advocacy group Aliento who attended the event. The Show spoke with him more about it earlier this morning from Washington.

Full conversation

MARIO MONTOYA: It was a wonderful experience to be able to be at the White House and just experience the new announcement. As a DACA recipient myself, the program has contributed to a lot of my life, throughout my education, throughout my career, and having that peace of mind of not being deported. But it's, at the same time, a bittersweet kind of feeling, because I know that the program is currently still in jeopardy, and it remains close for a lot of individuals that meet the criteria for it. So, while it was really exciting to be there, at the same time, it a little bit of bittersweetness with it as well, too.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah, as it seems to be with DACA. So as you mentioned there, Biden also announced a big new initiative that his administration will allow certain spouses of U.S. citizens who are undocumented to apply for permanent residency and, at some point, citizenship. This could apply to half a million people, not quite as many as DACA did back in 2012, but quite a few. How big of an impact do you think this could have on on people's lives, on people in your community? Do you know anyone who this might affect?

MONTOYA: Yeah, there's a lot of individuals that are married currently that are undocumented, and they are married to a U.S. citizen. I think this is going to really help individuals. It's going to ease the process of not having to go back to your country of origin and wait while you adjust status through there, because sometimes that could take years, months at the fastest. But some individuals, if you want to do it right now, you do have to go back to your country of origin and you do have to wait. So this will help keep families together and not separate the families from each other, which is really great in my opinion.

GILGER: I wonder that because I think there is a like a common misconception that if you marry a U.S. citizen, you will, you know, get to stay, you'll get citizenship, that kind of thing. And that's not necessarily the way it works.

MONTOYA: That's correct. So what you run into a lot of people that are individuals that are undocumented, depending on ... if you have an unlawful entry, it's what it's called, you have to ensure that that is adjusted. So that's what you need to go back to your country of origin and go ahead and get the paperwork to ensure that you get a proper, lawful entry. So that has stopped a lot of individuals from being able to go ahead and not get either their permanent resident status or get any form of citizenship at that point. So this will help address the individuals that meet all the other requirements except for that one.

GILGER: Yeah, so as I said, this could apply to a half a million people or upwards of that number. But it all kind of hangs in the balance of the next election. Like if former President Donald Trump is elected, he could rescind the program. It's an executive action, just like DACA. Do you think this could set off a rush by organizations like yours to try to get as many people as you can to apply to this program quickly? The election's coming up here pretty soon.

MONTOYA: Yeah. From what we heard yesterday at the White House, they said that the program will be released later in the summer. I think it's very depending to see exactly what the implementation is going to look like, what the requirements. We're going to need clear guidelines to see exactly what is going to be the process for individuals to apply. Meantime, like you mentioned, this is an executive order. So it is really important to keep in mind that this could be removed depending on who the next president is. But we, just like the DACA program as well, there might also be lawsuits. So, if the lawsuits occur, this might stop it from even being implemented to begin with if an injunction is placed on the program.

GILGER: Right, and I wanted to ask you about that, because this is taking place as an executive action versus kind of an act of Congress, right? Which is is just like DACA and puts it in sort of a more tenuous position. I know, as a DACA recipient, we've spoken before about the fact that you're always back and forth, right? There's always a limbo kind of situation in terms of your legal status or what might happen with the program. Will it stay? Will it go? Is this the same kind of feeling?

MONTOYA: I, I hope, for the individuals that this helps, I hope that they don't run into that same insecurity that is faced with DACA unfortunately. But I'm not quite sure what is going to be argued in the courts. I hope that the Biden administration took the right approach and they ensure that this program is solid. So it would be good to defend in the courts. But from my understanding, they did take their due diligence to ensure that. But it's still unknown, and we'll have to wait to see what happens with any court challenges that might occur.

GILGER: This, of course, also comes on the heels of another major immigration announcement from the Biden administration and an executive order also, but one kind of on the other end of the spectrum; one that suspends asylum claims on the border as long as migration remains at a high level. This was met with derision from many immigrant rights advocates. What was your response?

MONTOYA: It was very disheartening to see, because this population that's getting affected is people ultimately fleeing violence, fleeing prosecution. From my perspective, it was just very disheartening to see. I think it's really important and crucial to do differentiate that the Biden administration, at least, has kept some pathways to asylum still open, even though they're very restrictive now and more narrow. But they are still able to at least have some sort of pathway for asylum seekers.

GILGER: So this is an election year, and reports say Biden announcing this program to grant status to undocumented spouses could sort of balance out this announcement about asylum at the border. Do you think it's enough?

MONTOYA: … There's been a lot of conversation right now on new immigrants coming in or recent arrivals. I think this was, in a sense, the Biden administration trying to balance and keep in mind the long term undocumented immigrants that have been here in the country. … So I think he was trying to ensure that he could address issues for both populations that require different approaches.

GILGER: So some immigrant rights organizations are saying, you know, this is what they needed from Biden to rally around him this coming election. Do you agree? Do you think that groups like yours and we'll see more groups in Arizona campaigning for Biden? Is this the kind of move that you needed from him?

MONTOYA: I think it's a good step. Anything that makes the lives easier of individuals that have been here, giving back to our community, that are working in our hospitals. A pathway and a peace of mind is always a good step. As far as if it's enough, I think it's very dependent. If you're impacted, this could be life changing of not having to have your family separated. But if you are not eligible for these programs, to you, this might not seem like enough. So it's really dependent on the individual I’ll say.

GILGER: All right. We will leave it there for now. Mario Montoya, DACA recipient, research analyst with Aliento here in the Valley. Mario, thank you for coming back on the show. Appreciate it.

MONTOYA: Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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