Many Americans presume that the foreign spouse of a U.S. citizen automatically qualifies for citizenship. For most of the 20th century, that was more or less the case. Until 1996, all noncitizen spouses of U.S. citizens who met the legal standards for qualified marital relationships were able to become permanent residents, and later citizens, through a relatively straightforward process.

But the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act introduced harsh penalties for people living in the United States without legal immigration status that prevented some couples from being able to access this long-standing citizenship benefit.

One of the penalties introduced in the act is a 10-year “bar to reentry” for anyone who has lived without a visa in the United States for one year or more. This ban goes into effect as soon as that individual leaves U.S. territory.

If a U.S. citizen’s spouse entered the United States without a visa or other legal permission, they must leave the country for the final step in their legal immigration application process. But now, when they leave the country, their 10-year ban automatically goes into effect.

This policy leaves U.S. citizens in such families with an impossible choice: continue to live a life of fear and limitations in the United States, including the ever-present threat of their spouse’s deportation, or uproot their lives and relocate outside the U.S. for a decade or more.

Thousands of mixed-citizenship families in Utah find themselves in this situation, including some Latter-day Saint couples that met through missions, singles’ wards, and at church-sponsored schools. Many of these Utah families choose to stay here without legal status.

While staying in Utah allows them to remain tied to their communities and the lives they’ve built here, these families find that their opportunities are severely limited — economically, socially and geographically. They also grapple with the constant fear of deportation and family separation.

Some families experience the worst outcomes possible — separation, deportation, divorce and even death — because they cannot access family-based immigration.

Camille and Giovanni, who asked that I not use their real names to protect their identities, are two of the many individuals I have interviewed facing these challenges. When they married in Utah, Giovanni’s undocumented immigration status was far from their minds, since he had lived in the U.S. since he was six years old, and already felt American. This new couple felt confident that Giovanni would be a prime candidate for citizenship and began establishing their family in Utah.

When Camille was just weeks away from giving birth to their first child, however, Giovanni was pulled over for speeding on his way home from work. That encounter ultimately resulted in his deportation to Guatemala, leaving his wife struggling to put the pieces of their lives back together in her husband’s absence.

Once Giovanni was settled in Guatemala, Camille sold off almost everything they owned and flew with a few suitcases and their baby boy to reunite with Giovanni. They tried hard to start over in Guatemala, but struggled to find good employment and to feel at home. The stress and strain wore on their young family, to the point that Camille felt compelled to fly back to the U.S. to finish her college degree in hopes of improving their family’s economic outlook.

In seeking a way for Giovanni to return, Camille was dismayed to discover that it would be a decade or more before their family would be able to live together in the U.S. Keeping their family together came to feel impossible, leading sadly to divorce.

Not all mixed-citizenship families’ experiences are as devastating as Camille and Giovanni’s. Nevertheless, whether they live within our outside the U.S., all mixed-citizenship families with undocumented family members face extensive limitations on their ability to live, work, and thrive in the place they want to call home.

This is because, as my research shows, when one family member lacks legal immigration status, the entire family assumes an undocumented status, along with all the associated burdens.

When one family member cannot safely travel, work or access health care, all family members suffer. The opposite is also true. When a family member is able to shift from living without legal status in the United States to getting legal status, the lives of the entire family improve.

President Joe Biden recently announced a new executive action that gave hope to many of these mixed-citizenship families. The executive action offers a small policy tweak that will allow U.S. citizens’ foreign spouses to apply for permanent residency and a pathway to citizenship without having to leave the country and triggering the 10-year bar to reentry.

To benefit from the June 18 order, immigrants lacking legal status who are married to U.S. citizens must have arrived 10 or more years ago and have been married prior to the announcement. Applicants who meet these criteria can apply for temporary work permits and protection from deportation while their family-based immigration applications are processed.

Executive orders like this one are used by presidents as directives in the management of federal government operations, and every U.S. president has issued at least one. While many do not need congressional approval, some have been challenged as cases of executive overreach.

With this executive action, President Biden appears to be acting within constitutional limits by exercising his power outlined in U.S. immigration law to expand eligibility for relief that has been available to the immigrant spouses of U.S. military veterans for nearly twenty years.

The Biden administration estimates that about 500,000 immigrant spouses of citizens will qualify under this new policy. That’s half a million American families who can more fully participate in our communities socially and economically.

The executive action will also yield economic benefits for the communities where mixed-citizenship families live. Economic analyses measuring the impact of expanding work authorization and access to citizenship predict that changes like this one will create new jobs, boost incomes across communities, increase local and federal tax revenues, and encourage ongoing economic growth.

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Utah families and communities will directly benefit from this policy change. One of every 11 Utah residents is an immigrant, and an additional one of every 17 U.S. citizens in Utah lives with at least one immigrant parent. Over 80,000 U.S. citizens in Utah live with a family member who does not have legal immigration status, and many of them should benefit from Biden’s new policy.

Public opinion data show that most Americans support this kind of policy change, with more than 80% of Americans in favor of allowing immigrants living in the United States without legal permission the chance to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements over time.

This small policy change will have huge benefits for thousands of Utah families and for our communities, too. By protecting the rights of U.S. citizens to marry the person they love and helping keep families in our communities together, this new executive action is a low-risk, small tweak that will have a major, positive impact.

Jane Lilly López is an assistant professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. She is author of “Unauthorized Love: Mixed Citizenship Couples Negotiating Intimacy, Immigration, and the State” (Stanford University Press, 2022).

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