President Obama's new deportation policy took effect Wednesday, allowing young illegal immigrants to apply to stay in the United States.
The president's program allows eligible illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to begin submitting applications for work authorization and a two-year deferment on deportation.
Media reports said thousands of people were applying around the nation for the new status, which is modeled after the DREAM Act legislation debated in Congress.
DREAM Act advocacy and outreach organization United We Dream brought together applicants and attorneys to publicize the changes in immigration enforcement and encourage young people to learn about the application process as a part of a day national day of events marking the occasion.
Jorge Steven Acuña, who attended an event Wednesday at the National Immigration Forum offices, said he was especially hopeful about Obama's immigration initiative, because he had "lived every DREAMer's worst nightmare."
"Ever since I came out of jail ... I was always advocating for a way for my friends to be safe too," he said.
"DREAMer" is a moniker used to describe the young people who would be impacted by the DREAM Act.
Acuña, who received a one-year reprieve from deportation, now plans to apply to stay in the country under the Obama administration's "deferred action" directive.
"I was like, wow, this is like amazing, because now I can go to sleep knowing that my friends are going to be OK too. Today is a really emotional day, not only for myself, but for a lot of DREAMers because I know that they won't have to go through what I went through," Acuña said.
Under the new policy, immigrants under 30 years old who entered the United States under the age 16, have resided in the U.S. for five continuous years, don't have a criminal record and have a GED, high school diploma or are honorably discharged veterans, can apply for deferred action.
The program does not create a path to citizenship.
“Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a firm and sensible manner,” Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement at the time of the announcement. “But they are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case."
Opponents of the administration's directive have accused Obama of circumventing Congress and creating a temporary fix to a long-term immigration solution. Other critics have blasted Obama for political pandering to Hispanic voters ahead of the November election.
United We Dream Managing Director Cristina Jimenez said one of the biggest hurdles facing applicants is ensuring that they have the proper documentation to prove they meet the qualifications set out by DHS.
"Undocumented young people and their families don't tend to have official records of many things, because they mainly have been in the shadows for many years," she said.
Although Jimenez called Obama's decision a "victory" for DREAMers, she lamented that the program is a "temporary fix" to the problem.
"We, as an organization that works for young people and that worked really hard to get to this point, we cannot guarantee that all of this is going to continue to be the same for the next couples of years," she said. "We are ensuring people that they know that this is a temporary fix and that's why our work is really important to do, so we will continue to do advocacy and organizing to get a permanent change in policy, so that there's actually a path to citizenship."
Jimenez said that the Obama administration's record number of deportations and Congress's inaction on immigration legislation spurred the organization to continue to push for reforms.
"We have been talking about having undocumented people in the country for many years and Congress has not gotten their act together to make this happen," she added.
Obama said in June that the measure, which could effect as many as 800,000 people, would "lift the shadow of deportation” from immigrants, some of who have made “extraordinary contributions” by “serving in our military and protecting our freedom.”
“They study in our schools, play in our neighborhoods ... they pledge allegiance to our flag, they are Americans in their hearts and minds ... and in every single way but one: on paper," he said.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney took a hard stance against illegal immigration during the GOP primary, but he has softened his position in an effort to reach out to Hispanic voters.
Myrna Orozco, 22, an organizer for United We Dream and an undocumented immigrant, said she was satisfied with Obama's decision.
"Even though this is a temporary thing, that's all that is in the president's power. He obviously needs Congress to give us a permanent, long-term solution, so I'm glad he took this first step, the right step," Orozco said.
Orozco, who said she was brought to the United States from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, in Mexico by her mom when she was 4 years old, said she felt "blessed" by the chance to apply for the two-year program.
"It still feels surreal … I'm now seeing people actually fill it out," she said. "Yesterday when I saw the application, I'm like this is seven pieces of paper will change your life," she said.
— Produced and reported by Geneva Sands and Adele Hampton.