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President Biden’s administration is weighing a far-reaching move that would unlock temporary legal status and potentially a path to American citizenship for hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, five people familiar with the internal discussions told CBS News.

The plan under consideration by the White House would give work permits and deportation protections to certain unauthorized immigrants through the immigration parole authority, as long as they have spouses who are American citizens, the sources said. The policy, known as “parole in place,” could also make beneficiaries eligible for permanent U.S. residency and eventually even citizenship, by helping them clear hurdles in U.S. law.

The sources, two current U.S. officials, two former officials and a congressional official, all spoke under condition of anonymity to speak freely about internal plans. They said the final details of the Biden administration’s proposal have not been approved or finalized. 

The plan, the sources said, would likely benefit longtime undocumented immigrants who have been living in the U.S. for years, if not decades — not recent arrivals.

In a statement to CBS News, White House spokesperson Angelo Hernandez Fernandez said officials “continue to explore a series of policy options, and we remain committed to taking action to address our broken immigration system.”

The proposal being considered by the administration, which was first reported by The Wall Street Journal in late April, would be the latest ambitious move by Mr. Biden to act unilaterally on immigration amid decades of congressional gridlock on the issue. Last week, in the harshest policy enacted by a Democratic president, Mr. Biden invoked his executive authority to ban most migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border from asylum.

But the parole in place plan could benefit a significant number of the country’s undocumented population. There are an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S., according to estimates by the federal government and research groups. The advocacy group Fwd.US estimates that 1.1 million of them have U.S. citizen spouses.

Progressive lawmakers and advocates also argue that the proposal would also help Mr. Biden politically, energizing some voters, including Latinos, ahead of the election in November. Polling over the years has shown that Latino voters broadly support border security measures and programs to legalize unauthorized immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for years.

If approved, the plan would likely confront legal challenges. The Biden administration has already faced lawsuits by Republican state officials over its use of the parole authority, and in 2016, the Supreme Court, in a 4-4 deadlock, prevented the Obama administration from giving work permits and deportation protections to the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and green card holders. 

The Biden administration has used the immigration parole authority at an unprecedented scale, invoking it to resettle hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from Afghanistan, Latin America, Haiti and Ukraine. The plan being discussed within the administration would use that same authority to provide immigration relief to some people already in the U.S.

A grant of parole in place would allow unauthorized immigrants married to U.S. citizens to obtain temporary work permits and legal status. But perhaps more importantly, it would also allow some of them to overcome a rule in U.S. immigration law that prohibits immigrants from getting permanent legal status if they were not officially admitted or paroled into the U.S.

Immigrants who entered the U.S illegally, for example, generally have to leave the country and re-enter legally to qualify for a green card based on an application by a U.S. citizen spouse. Those immigrants, however, can face years-long bans from re-entering the U.S., leading some to not travel overseas and pursue that option.

Parole in place would give undocumented spouses of American citizens a chance to become permanent U.S. residents, if they meet other requirements, without having to leave the country. Unlike other categories, green cards for spouses of American citizens are unlimited. After several years, green card holders may apply for U.S. citizenship.

Since the Bush administration, the U.S. government has operated a smaller-scale parole in place program for unauthorized immigrants who are immediate relatives of U.S. military members. In 2020, Congress affirmed that policy.