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Young people brought to the U.S. illegally began applying for a deportation deferral and a two-year work permit on Wednesday. It's the boldest immigration program yet by the Obama administration — putting into effect elements of the so-called DREAM Act even though it has not passed Congress.
Lizbeth Mateo has high school and college diplomas from California and evidence that she has been in the country continuously for at least five years. What she wants now is assurance that she won't be deported.
"I have all of those documents, but, yeah, I still have to apply and see if my application gets accepted," she says.
Mateo is a prime candidate for the program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. She came here from Mexico with her family when she was 14. Now, at 28, she is just under the program's age limit of 31. She lives in Washington, D.C., and says the U.S. is home.
"It only makes sense to make us part of the workforce," Mateo says, "and to give us a chance to really show what we can do for this country, what we can do for the communities and what we can do to rebuild the economy and rebuild the country."
The program is aimed at undocumented young people in school, those who've graduated and those who served in the military. Anyone with a criminal record is barred from applying. There's a $465 fee, which is supposed to pay for the program, and there's a lot of paperwork.
Hundreds of immigrant-rights and social service organizations across the country are holding workshops to help people apply.
Rene Franco of Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona says he has been getting a lot of inquiries, but young people who've been here a long time might not need a lot of help.
"They speak the language like any American, so they are really acquainted with our culture," Franco says. "It's very different than we see people they just arrived."
That could mean there will be a deluge of applicants. A spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services says the agency has hired extra workers. But it will still take months to process each application.
The Obama administration says the program is just another step in its effort to prioritize immigration enforcement on criminals.
"Deferred action does not provide lawful status or a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship," says Alejandro Mayorkas, the head of USCIS.
It does, however, appeal to the Latino community and Latino voters.
If it were just prioritizing, says William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, there would be no need for a fee and no need to issue work permits. Only Congress can pass immigration law, and Gheen says if Congress wanted to pass the DREAM Act, it would have.
"The Obama administration, the Bush administration or any Romney administration, they're not allowed to make legislation. They're not allowed to decide what will be the laws or not. That's what kings and despots do," Gheen says.
The deferred action policy is the result of a presidential memo, and a Romney administration could reverse it. Still, the private Migration Policy Institute estimates that up to 1.7 million people are eligible to apply for deferred action, and starting Wednesday, a lot of them are expected to do so.