Authorities have begun accepting applications for deferred deportations from undocumented immigrants brought here as children, many of whom consider America home, an initiative that could benefit up to 1.7 million people.
Obama’s critics accuse him of pandering to Hispanic voters ahead of his re-election battle against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but he insists it is a “humane” gesture that will allow law enforcement to focus on criminals.
“I am the only undocumented person in my family, and now I have a little more confidence that I will not be separated from them,” said Mirna Orozco, a 22-year-old Mexican who has lived in the United States for the past 18 years.
A directive issued two months ago by Obama allows undocumented immigrants to apply to stay in the United States if they were under the age of 16 when they arrived.
To be eligible, applicants also must be under 31 today, in school or having served in the US military, and have no criminal record.
“Childhood arrivals who meet the guidelines and whose cases are deferred will now be able to live without fear of removal, and be able to more fully contribute their talents to our great nation,” said Alejandro Mayorkas, head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The Obama administration defends the measure as a practical step that will allow US immigration law enforcement to focus on attempting to deport people with criminal records.
The administration backs a more comprehensive immigration reform initiative – the so-called Dream Act – but the measure has failed to pass Congress because of opposition from Republicans, who brand it an “amnesty.”
Most of the estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States are from Latin America.
The government estimates that more than 800,000 people are currently eligible to apply, but outside experts place the number at one million, with another 700,000 to become eligible when they reach the minimum age of 15.
Beneficiaries of the move — known as “Dreamers” after the act that was defeated in Congress – can get their deportation deferred for two years on a renewable basis and become eligible for temporary work permits.
Supportive officials and advocacy groups held briefings nationwide on Wednesday to explain the process to prospective applicants, insisting that they would not risk arrest and deportation by applying.
“Happy deferred action day everyone!” tweeted America’s Voice, an advocacy group for immigration reform.
At the National Immigration Forum in the US capital Washington, Nathaly Montano Vargas, a 17-year-old Bolivian who came to the country in 2001, filled out forms with help from lawyers and volunteers.
“We don’t yet feel that this is real. My heart will not start beating again until this has actually happened,” she told AFP.
“We are here to demonstrate that there is no harm in applying,” added Montano Vargas, who hopes to study medicine.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services has said the information submitted will not be shared with law enforcement unless the individual is wanted for a crime or considered a national security threat.
Officials caution that applicants must pay a $465 fee and that the process could take several months to complete.