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Today is the first day young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children can legally extend their stay. They can now apply for a deportation deferral and a two-year work permit. The boldest immigration program yet by the Obama administration, it puts into effect elements of the DREAM Act, even though that act has not passed Congress. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.
TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Lizbeth Mateo has high school and college diplomas from California and evidence she's been in the country continuously for at least five years. What she wants now is assurance she won't be deported.
LIZBETH MATEO: So I have all of those documents, but, yeah. I still have to apply and see if my application gets accepted.
ROBBINS: 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.
MATEO: So it only makes sense to make us part of the workforce and to give us a chance to really show what we can do for this country, what we can do for our communities and what we can do to rebuild the economy and rebuild the country.
ROBBINS: The program is aimed at undocumented young people in school, those who've graduated and those who've 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 is with Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona. He says he's been getting a lot of inquiries, but young people who've been here a long time might not need a lot of help.
RENE FRANCO: They speak the language like any American, you know. So they are really acquainted with our culture. It's very different than we see people that just arrived.
ROBBINS: That could also mean 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. Alejandro Mayorkas is head of USCIS.
ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: A deferred action does not provide lawful status or a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship.
ROBBINS: It does, however, appeal to the Latino community and Latino voters. If it were just prioritizing, William Gheen says there'd be no need for a fee, no need to issue work permits. Gheen is president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC. Only Congress can pass immigration law, and he says if it wanted to pass the DREAM Act, it would have.
WILLIAM GHEEN: And the Obama administration nor the Bush administration nor 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.
ROBBINS: The deferred action policy is the result of a presidential memo. A Romney administration could reverse it. Still, the private Migration Policy Institute estimates up to 1.7 million people are eligible to apply for deferred action, and starting today, a lot of them are expected to do so.
Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.