Thousands of young illegal immigrants hoping for a reprieve from deportation are scrambling to gather required paperwork, standing in long lines at consulates and seeking legal help in anticipation of the application process opening Wednesday.
The line of people waiting to apply for passports and consular identification cards at the Mexican consulate in Houston's Midtown stretched for blocks Tuesday morning, snarling traffic.
The U.S. government planned to start accepting applications on Wednesday for the new program, which offers illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and teens temporary protection from deportation and a chance to apply for a work permit. The protection and work permits would last for two years, and then applicants could apply for renewal.
The controversial program announced by President Barack Obama in June marks the first significant step in years toward addressing the nation's undocumented population. It is expected to benefit up to 1.76 million, young undocumented immigrants -- including roughly 210,00 in Texas, according to the latest estimates by the Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan immigration think tank.
Claudia Hernandez, 29, arrived at the Mexican consulate at 7 a.m. Tuesday, and camped outside in a green lawn chair with a box of Ritz crackers and jug of lemonade. She vowed to stay overnight if necessary to file her Mexican passport paperwork in anticipation of applying for what's called deferred action.
Hernandez, whose parents brought her to Baytown from Mexico when she was 8 years old, said the new program will open doors for her, giving her a chance to work and hopefully drive legally in the U.S. -- at least temporarily.
"I am very excited. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't," said Hernandez, a single mother who works as a janitor but dreams of getting a bachelor's in business administration.
On Tuesday, the U.S. government for the first time posted the forms online for the program, which requires applicants to be age 30 or younger as of June 15, and to have entered the U.S. before their 16th birthdays. In order to qualify, they must also have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, be enrolled in school, have graduated from high school or earned a GED.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and several other leading Republicans have criticized the program, saying it amounts to back door amnesty and will be vulnerable to fraud.
Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said on a conference call Tuesday with reporters that the processing of the applications could take several months. He said immigrants will have to pay a $465 fee and provide proof of their identity and eligibility, which can include passports and school transcripts. He also stressed that the program does not offer applicants a path toward legal status or the ability to travel internationally.
Homeland Security officials also warned of scams involving people posing as attorneys offering legal advice. Some immigrant advocates urged caution in filling out the new government forms without legal help, particularly in complicated cases.
"The important thing is to do it right the first time because there is no appeals process," said Jo Ann Zuniga, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities of Galveston-Houston, which offers free immigration clinics on the first three Tuesdays of each month. "It's better to do it correctly than to do it quickly and be denied."
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