Several hundred young people showed up Saturday at a forum in Atlanta about a new and controversial policy giving young illegal immigrants a two-year reprieve from deportation.
Organizers had expected a crowd -- but not one that numbered close to 1,000 people.
Throngs of people not only filled a large conference room but overflowed into the lobby and also outside before the forum started Saturday afternoon at the Latin American Association headquarters on Buford Highway.
Similar events in other cities across the country, including New York and Houston, also have drawn massive turnouts.
A new policy by the Obama administration announced in June allows young people a "deferred action," or promise they wouldn't be deported for two years. Wednesday was the first day immigrants could start applying for the new program, which also gives them the right to work legally in the U.S. for two years.
To qualify, one must be currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a GED, or be an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or armed forces of the U.S.
The forum, organized by the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, the Latin American Association and the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center, was designed to help answer general questions about applying for the deferral. Many members of the panel, which included attorneys, urged young people to have all of their documents in order because there will be no appeals of applications denied.
Ana Plascencia, 29, arrived early, clinging to a notebook -- and to hope she will get two years to start going to college and, she said, ultimately "change my life."
At age 15 Plascencia arrived in the United States, entering illegally with her mother. She said her mother eventually married a U.S. citizen and is now a legal resident.
Plascencia said she lives in constant fear of being deported and is forced to take on odd jobs cleaning houses. If she qualifies for the deferral, she said she would go to college and pursue a degree in the medical field.
Supporters say the policy is a humane way to boost the U.S. economy by keeping educated immigrants here.
Critics say the White House is pandering to Hispanics with this election-year announcement, and they worry the new policy will allow illegal immigrants to take jobs from U.S. citizens in Georgia at a time of high joblessness.
Phil Kent, national spokesman of Americans for Immigration Control and a member of Georgia's Immigration and Enforcement Review Board, lambasted the policy, which allows those granted the reprieve from deportation to obtain work get permits and get Social Security cards.
"Valid social security cards are like keys to the kingdom," he said. "They could then apply for anything from getting a driver's license to financial aid to college. ... They certainly should not be granted work permits in a time of high unemployment."
The program also doesn't sit well with Lori Pesta, president of the Republican Women of Cherokee County.
"This applies to people up to 30 years old, and if they were here as babies, they've had 20, 30 years to become U.S. citizens," she said. "Even if they were young kids, their parents should have done that for them as they've grown older. I don't accept it. I think it's totally inappropriate for our state and our country."
Plascencia said her illegal entry into the country made it impossible for her to ever obtain legal residency. That scenario is not uncommon, said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of GALEO.
Even so, critics say the two-year-reprieve only delays what is really needed: strong overhaul of a broken immigration system.
To apply, immigrants must pay $465 and submit to background checks. Those who receive deferred action can apply for driver's licenses in Georgia. The policy applies to illegal immigrants, under the age of 31, who were brought here as young children and who have not committed serious crimes.
As many as 1.4 million immigrants across the U.S. might be eligible for deferred action, according to an estimate by the Immigration Policy Center, an arm of the American Immigration Council, an immigrant rights and policy group in Washington. Of those, 24,360 live in Georgia, the eighth-largest total among states.
While successful applicants would be given work permits, the program does not include a path to citizenship or permanent legal status.
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