President Joe Biden speaks from the White House on Tuesday, when...

President Joe Biden speaks from the White House on Tuesday, when he announced a new initiative that could put Long Islanders potentially numbering in the thousands who are married to U.S. citizens but lack legal status in the country on a path to permanent residency. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

Long Island immigrants who are married to U.S. citizens but lack legal status in the country — people potentially numbering in the thousands — could be put on the path to permanent residency under a new policy the Biden administration announced Tuesday. 

The initiative, which begins this summer for those who qualify, could help an estimated 500,000 noncitizen spouses nationwide and about 50,000 noncitizen children with a biological parent married to a U.S. citizen apply for lawful permanent residency without leaving the country.

In New York, there are roughly 20,000 eligible undocumented spouses married to U.S. citizens, people with an average age of 43 and who have been in the United States, on average, for 23 years, according to FWD.us, an immigration and criminal justice reform advocacy organization.

“Under this program, hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrants across Long Island will be able to live without fear of being separated from their families,” said Elise de Castillo, executive director of CARECEN, a Hempstead and Brentwood-based organization that provides free legal services and education for new immigrants.

She added Tuesday that the initiative will benefit many of her organization's clients, people she said “have become a vital part of our communities and economy for more than a decade, but have been forced into the shadows because of our broken immigration system.”

To qualify, an immigrant must have lived continuously in the country for 10 years as of June 17 and be married to a U.S. citizen, while satisfying requirements such as a clean criminal record, up-to-date vaccinations and having no communicable diseases. There is no requirement for how long the couple must have been married.

If U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approves an immigrant’s application, the person will have three years to apply for a green card and in the meantime can get a temporary work permit. During that time, the noncitizen will be shielded from deportation, federal officials said. 

A similar policy, known as “parole in place,” is already available for noncitizen spouses of U.S. military members.

But Andrew Arthur, resident fellow in law and policy for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for stricter immigration enforcement, said the new initiative is susceptible to fraud and will overwhelm an agency already struggling to process more than 3 million pending applications.

For example, Arthur said, courts typically accept rent receipts, utility bills and pay stubs as proof of an immigrant's residency. Those documents, he said, could be manipulated easily to reflect that a noncitizen has lived in the country for a decade. 

“There's going to be some … individuals who are married to a U.S. citizen but don't have those 10 years, or alternatively, they left for some period of time and returned to the United States,” he said. “So they're going to have to create documents to show they have the full 10-year period for that relief.”

Nationwide, about 1.3 million undocumented immigrants have been married to a U.S. citizen for more than a decade but not all are eligible for the new program, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

An individual who arrives in the .United States with a visa typically can earn legal status by marrying a U.S. citizen. But those rules haven't applied to immigrants who cross the southern border illegally and later marry U.S. citizens. They currently must return to their home countries to complete the green card process.

Sister Janet Kinney, director of the Long Island Immigration Clinic, a Brentwood organization that provides legal support to undocumented immigrants, said that means people potentially have to live for years in countries they left as young children and where they no longer have family.

For Long Islanders who fled violence in nations such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, returning home may not be an option, said Samantha Blecher, a senior lawyer at Immigration Law & Justice New York in Hicksville, which is connected to the United Methodist Church.

“For security and safety reasons, they probably don't want to go back there and wait it out,” said Blecher.

She added that the existing process takes up to five years, with no guarantees of green card approval.

Immigration attorney H. Raymond Fasano, who has an office in Patchogue, said allowing noncitizen spouses to obtain temporary work permits “makes common sense” and “helps out the government because that's a new stream of revenue.”

President Joe Biden on Tuesday also announced a plan to expedite work permits for young people brought to the country illegally as children who since have graduated from an accredited college.

Denise Bell, a vice president at New York Immigration Coalition in Manhattan, said each new initiative “creates stronger communities, keeps families together and invests in our workforce.”

With Tom Brune

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