BEAUFORT, S.C. (CN) - As many as 1.7 million people who entered the United States without documents as children may qualify to stay under "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," an executive order President Obama signed this summer after Congress failed to act.
The Migration Policy Institute in August published a study estimating that as many as 1.7 million undocumented immigrants may qualify for deferred action. About 72 percent meet the age criteria now, and 28 percent could qualify when they meet the age, educational, residency and other requirements of the program.
The largest numbers of potential beneficiaries are in California, Florida, New York and Texas. Ten other states, including Arizona, New Jersey, Georgia and North Carolina, are home to another 25 percent of the potential beneficiaries.
In South Carolina, where Latinos represent 5 percent of the population, there may be as many as 10,000 potential beneficiaries.
Beaufort County, with 20,000 Latinos in a population of 162,000, has sent out hundreds of applications for deferred status.
The Jenkins & Esquivel law firm, one of only two places in the county that helps people with the paperwork, is flooded with applicants, and has sent out more than 350 applications. Many more are expected to apply, some from as far as Atlanta, said Hector Esquivel, one of the firm's partners.
"The vast majority of them are hopeful and excited," Esquivel said in a telephone interview. "There are a few that are a bit skeptical and think it's a trap, but not a whole lot of them".
Esquivel said the program, which will allow his qualifying clients to work legally in 2-year increments and get driver's licenses, will bring a life of "definitely less fear" for those who benefit from it.
While some applicants are concerned that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, which is in charge of the program, will receive information on hundreds of thousands of undocumented aliens, USCIS has indicated that it will not share any of the information with its sister agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, except in very limited cases, according to Esquivel.
Federal immigration agencies began taking applications for deportation deferrals on Aug. 15, 2 months after President Obama issued the executive order that suspends deportation and grants work permits to immigrants who were brought to the United States by their families at an early age.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program grants deferral of deportation and work permits that are renewable after 2 years. Applicants must be under 31, must have lived in the United States continuously for 5 years, and must have entered the country before their 16th birthday.
They must be enrolled students, honorably discharged veterans, or high school graduates. A felony, a serious misdemeanor, or three less serious misdemeanors are grounds for disqualification.
Though the program temporarily suspends deportation without opening a path to citizenship, opponents criticized it as "a form of backdoor amnesty," saying it exacerbated the unemployment problem in a precarious economy.
But for many young people who have lived in the United States for most of their lives, the deferred action program is a chance to come out of the shadows and move up the professional ladder.
Oscar Moreno, a young entrepreneur in Beaufort County, said the program may give him a chance to continue his education and give back to his community.
"I think it's a great opportunity for us, especially for many of us who have the potential, but didn't have the chance to prove it," Moreno told Courthouse News in an interview. "It's more like a big door opening for us, and I think it's a small step toward a bigger one."
Moreno, 22, a high school graduate, recently opened a store that offers computer, wireless and smartphone services. He came to the country when he was 11, with his parents, who have since gone back to Mexico.
A 23-year-old Honduran who asked to remain anonymous said she hopes the program will allow her to get a college degree and a driver's license.
"I would like to go to college, and study to become a dental assistant," said the young immigrant, who graduated from high school in 2007.
Her parents, who brought her to the United States when she was very young, became permanent residents with the help of their U.S.-citizen son, making her the only member of the family without legal status.
Some applicants said they faced new fears as the presidential race draws to a close.
"I'm a little concerned about a change of administration," Moreno said, voicing many applicants' worries that a Republican administration may take away their long-awaited opportunity.
To many critics, the deferred action program was a transparent attempt by President Obama to win back Latino voters after his administration deported more than 1 million immigrants in 3 years.
The Latino vote could be pivotal in battleground states such as Florida and Colorado.
"I would imagine it would sway some of the [Latino voters], but not all of them," Esquivel said.
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