SANTA ANA, Calif. – Nathaly Uribe has all the papers she needs to get a work permit — something the 17-year-old daughter of a construction worker only dreamed of growing up as an illegal immigrant in the United States.
The high school senior said she hopes a federal program beginning Wednesday that defers deportation for illegal immigrants will make it easier to get a decent job and help pay for college.
"This is my country. It's where my roots are," said Uribe, who moved from Chile when she was a toddler and lives in Glen Burnie, Md. "It feels great to know that the country that I call home is finally accepting me."
Thousands of young illegal immigrants lined up Wednesday hoping for the right to work legally in America without being deported. The Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals could expand the rights of more than 1 million young illegal immigrants by giving them work permits, though they would not obtain legal residency here or a path to citizenship.
At least 13,000 people stood in line in Chicago, clutching reams of paperwork, for a workshop led by immigrant rights advocates at the city's Navy Pier. Hundreds of potential applicants waited outside nonprofit offices in Los Angeles for help filing paperwork to open the door to the staples of success in America — a work permit, and then later a Social Security number and driver's license.
"It's something I have been waiting for since I was two years old," said Bupendra Ram, a 25-year-old communications graduate student in Fullerton, Calif., who still needs supporting documents from his Fiji Islands home before he can apply. "This offers us an opportunity to fulfill the dreams I've had since I was a child."
Less than three months before an expected tight presidential election, the new immigration program is mired in controversy. Republican critics accuse President Barack Obama of drafting the plan to boost his political standing with Latinos ahead of November's vote and say the program favors illegal immigrants over unemployed American citizens during dismal economic times.
In Arizona, which passed one of the nation's toughest anti-immigration laws, Gov. Jan Brewer signed an executive order Wednesday directing state agencies to deny driver's licenses and other public benefits to illegal immigrants who obtain work authorizations under the program. Brewer said the federal program doesn't give immigrants legal status and she's following the intent of the current state law denying public benefits to them.
To be eligible for the federal program, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, are 30 or younger, have been living in the country at least five years and are in school or graduated or served in the military. They cannot have been convicted of certain crimes or otherwise pose a safety threat.
Initial concerns that federal authorities might take a tough approach on applications or that a Republican presidential victory could unravel applicants' gains have largely been pushed aside by massive interest from thousands of young people eager to work.
In Los Angeles, one immigrant rights' group started hosting hourly information sessions over the last month to keep up with the frenzy. The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles has handed out 12,000 information packets about the program and is encouraging all eligible immigrants to apply as long as they have stayed out of legal trouble, said Angelica Salas, the organization's director.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney does not support so-called Dream Act legislation for illegal immigrants who attend college — a key group that Obama aims to reach with this program. The former Massachusetts governor has also criticized the deferred action program but has not said it he would reverse it, pledging instead an unspecified "civil but resolute" long-term fix to illegal immigration.
So far, the measure has won favor for Obama along Latinos — many who view immigration as a litmus test when choosing a political candidate, said Manuel Pastor, director of the University of Southern California's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
"What this has done is to signal that the president, who was unable to get comprehensive immigration reform, does at least care about the situation of these immigrants," Pastor said. "This is something that has been overwhelmingly popular in the immigrant population and in the Latino population in general."
Some Republican lawmakers have accused Obama of sidestepping Congress and creating a backdoor amnesty program.
"It's a betrayal of American young people," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican. "We're supposed to be representing the interests of the American people — not people who come here illegally from other countries."
In an internal document outlining the program's implementation, Department of Homeland Security officials estimated more than 1 million people would apply in the first year and about 890,000 would be eligible.
On Wednesday, immigrants lined up for help filing applications at workshops around the country. Others sought identity documents from consulates to be able to apply.
Jaqueline Cinto said she's still working on gathering the documents she needs, knowing it's her only shot at putting her master's degree in education to good use. But she's nervous that filing the papers might put her relatives at risk for deportation — even though Homeland Security officials have said they will generally not use applicants' information to track down other family.
"I am even more afraid that I might be denied," said Cinto, 26, who came to New York more than a decade ago from Mexico.
In central California, one group has been warning farmworkers and their children not to sign up for the program at all.
"Immigration agents could haul them off that same day," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League. "Even if they don't, if this policy is disbanded, now ICE has the addresses of all the families. Why would you want to squeal on your parents?"
The documents to prove identity could include passports, birth certificates, school transcripts, medical, financial and military records. Multiple sworn affidavits, signed under penalty of perjury, can also be used, Homeland Security officials said. Anyone found to have committed fraud will be referred to federal immigration agents, the department said.
Laura Lichter, a Denver attorney who heads the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said everyone takes a risk by applying.
"I would say that people are between a rock and a hard place. In most cases, people can take (the government) at their word that their intent is to administer this policy in a fair and appropriate manner but there are going to be people that are going to find themselves having problems," she said
A decision on each application could take several months, and immigrants have been warned not to leave the country while their application is pending. If they are allowed to stay in the United States and want to travel internationally, they will need to apply for permission to come back into the country, a request that would cost another $360.
The lines on Wednesday grew throughout the day; the crowd in Chicago was so large that workshop organizers told them to come back another day.
"Navy Pier is today's Ellis Island, and while they saw New York City, today they see Chicago," said Illinois congressman Luis Gutierrez. "But the most important thing is they see America."
Contributing to this report were Andres Gonzalez and Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington, Elliot Spagat in San Diego, Gosia Wozniacka in Fresno, Calif., Sitthixay Ditthavong and Sophia Tareen in Chicago and Paul Davenport in Phoenix.