Parole in Place
for Undocumented Spouses of U.S. Citizens

Parole in place provides relief from deportation and offers authorization to work for certain undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Approximately 1.1 million undocumented immigrants are married to U.S. citizens. The Biden administration could expand access to existing parole in place processes to help many long-term U.S. residents secure protections from deportation, gain work authorization and in some cases, help them access a pathway to legal status. This effort, along with other policy recommendations that FWD.us has endorsed, would make significant progress towards providing immigration relief for long-term undocumented individuals and their families

Parole is a long-standing authority that helps keep families together and strengthens the economy.
See our Immigration Parole Policy Brief for more background.

Parole in place is an existing legal authority

Parole in place (PIP) allows undocumented individuals who are already in the United States to receive immigration parole, which protects them from deportation for a limited time (typically one year) and offers the opportunity to apply for work authorization.

Parole is a long-standing authority that helps keep families together and strengthens the economy. Section 212(d)(5)(A) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security to “in his discretion parole into the United States temporarily under such conditions as he may prescribe only on a case-by-case basis for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit any alien applying for admission to the United States.”

Because individuals who are in the U.S. without having been formally admitted are considered “applicants for admission” under the INA, they are eligible for parole. Anyone who has been formally admitted, including someone who has overstayed their visa, would not be eligible.

The first dedicated PIP program was a “military parole in place” process that is still used today due to its success. In November 2013, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a policy memorandum asserting that granting parole to undocumented children, parents, and spouses of active duty or retired service members “would generally be an appropriate exercise of discretion,” and that an individual’s direct relationship to a service member “weighs heavily in favor of parole in place.”

Parole applications are considered case by case and are not automatically granted. Since 2020, roughly 47,000 applications have been approved for PIP, representing less than 40% of the total number of applications received by USCIS.

A smarter, saner, and more compassionate way forward that protects families and grows the U.S. economy could include protection from deportation, authorization to work, and better access to legal pathways for permanent status.”

Parole in place offers work authorization and protection from deportation

People living in the U.S. without documentation are always at risk of deportation. That risk is significantly increased for immigrants living in states that are implementing aggressive anti-immigrant policies, like SB4 in Texas, which purposefully targets undocumented residents. Their removal and separation from their families would cause devastating harm to them, their spouses and children, their communities, and the United States as a whole, with virtually no opportunities for reprieve.

A smarter, saner, and more compassionate way forward that protects families and grows the U.S. economy could include protection from deportation, authorization to work, and better access to legal pathways for permanent status. This would allow individuals to contribute even more to the country they have called home for many years, and would help reduce the number of people who are living without documentation in the U.S.

If not for the harsh bars that exist, undocumented individuals who are married to U.S. citizens would have access to one of the most direct pathways to securing permanent status.

Parole in place could unlock a pathway to legal status and provide relief from immigration bars

In some specific cases, parole in place could also unlock a pathway to permanent status by providing relief from immigration bars. If not for the harsh bars that exist, undocumented individuals who are married to U.S. citizens would have access to one of the most direct pathways to securing permanent status—their spouses can sponsor them, and there is no annual numerical limit on the number of green cards available for this group.

Individuals who were not formally admitted or paroled into the U.S., called “entering without inspection” (EWI), are generally not eligible to adjust their status here and instead must depart and reenter lawfully. However, leaving the U.S. can trigger immigration bars that prevent them from returning for many years. The reentry bars can be so extreme—some are permanent—that many families choose not to even pursue this legal option.

Some immediate relatives of U.S. citizens can apply for a “provisional unlawful presence waiver,” which grants relief from the bars before they leave the U.S. to complete the process; however, the application process is heavily backlogged, with more than 130,000 applications currently pending. Even with waivers, individuals are often denied reentry on other grounds, leaving families separated for many years.

Being granted parole can resolve some individuals’ EWI issues, making them eligible to adjust status in the U.S. and complete their existing pathway to legal status through their U.S. citizen spouse. They would no longer need reentry waivers, which would reduce backlogs and ease the burden of work on USCIS and the State Department, saving taxpayer money and helping to streamline a system that has been persistently overburdened for decades. It’s important to note that parole would only make them eligible to complete this process in the U.S., it would not on its own resolve other inadmissibility issues.

Expanding eligibility for parole in place to spouses of U.S. citizens would help keep families together and increase economic contributions

According to FWD.us estimates, some 1.1 million undocumented people in the U.S. are spouses of a U.S. citizen.1 On average, these undocumented spouses have lived in the U.S. for 16 years, are 41 years old, and have been married to their U.S. citizen spouses for many years. A total 2.5 million U.S. citizens live in this type of mixed-status families, including more than a million children. Some 325,000 of these undocumented spouses are Dreamers, or entered the U.S. before age 18. 90,000 of these undocumented spouses are DACA recipients. Most undocumented spouses (80%) have high school diplomas, and have some college education (41%).

Source: FWD.us analysis of 2021 American Community Survey data, using this methodology for the assignment of immigrant status.

Undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens are also taxpayers. Each year, their families pay more than $21 billion in federal and payroll taxes and $11 billion in state and local taxes.

Having lived in the U.S. for several years, undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens are already highly integrated into the U.S. economy. The majority (71%) are in the labor force, and the overwhelming majority (90%) of their families are living above the poverty line. More than half (59%) of their households own their own home.

An estimated 560,000 undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens already work in labor-short industries, but often face barriers to being employed in positions they would be capable of filling if they had a work permit. With work authorizations, they would have greater flexibility to be able to work in positions with greater industry need which would expand their productivity, allow new individuals to enter the labor force, and ease inflationary pressures for everyone in the U.S.2

Undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens, as individuals, already contribute an estimated $26 billion annually to the U.S. economy in spending power. After securing permanent legal status, they could pursue U.S. citizenship, which would empower them to contribute even more. FWD.us analysis shows that undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens would contribute an additional $16 billion annually in spending power to the U.S. economy.3

Undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens are also taxpayers. Each year, their families pay more than $21 billion in federal and payroll taxes and $11 billion in state and local taxes. During the previous decade, their families have contributed some $173 billion in federal and payroll taxes, with an additional $89 billion in state and local taxes.4

The Biden administration should expand eligibility for parole in place to undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens. This would provide hundreds of thousands of long-term U.S. residents with protection from deportation, give them authorization to work, and offer some an opportunity to complete their immigration process and secure permanent legal status in the U.S., helping to keep families together and strengthening our economy.

Notes

  1. Earlier FWD.us publications, based on FWD.us' methodology for assigning immigration status to respondents in the 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data, estimated a higher number (nearly 1.7 million) of undocumented immigrants married to U.S. citizen spouses. This most recent estimate of 1.1 million individuals, however, reflects different, and likely more plausible, methodological assumptions placed on the underlying 2021 ACS data. The difference in estimates does not reflect a change in the actual population size; instead, it is the result of different methodological techniques in estimating the immigration status of immigrants.
  2. Short-handed industries are those with 5% or higher job opening rates as of January 2024, according to Bureau of Labor’s job openings data.
  3. Economic contributions are the total spending power of personal income, after estimated federal, state, and local tax payments. Federal taxes are based on federal and payroll tax estimates for market income by household type and household size from the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) 2017 “Distribution of Household Income” report. Estimates do not take into account differences in local taxation rates, but are based on estimated state averages of taxation by income from the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy’s (ITEP) 2018 report, “Who Pays? A Distribution Analysis of the Tax Systems in All 50 States.” Citizenship multipliers and likelihood of filing taxes, based on the national 2018 Survey of Income and Program Participation analysis, were assigned as predicted probabilities to demographic groups based on sex, age, year of immigration, and education.
  4. Annual taxes paid were calculated based on family income from the 2021 ACS using the same CBO and ITEP tax tables. For total decade tax contributions (2014-2023), the total taxes generated for 2021 were pro-rated by the change in average national earnings and average national employment rates before and after 2021.

Andrew Moriarty

Immigration Policy Fellow

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