Jennifer Morales was uncertain about her future after she graduated from Red Springs High School. She had no job, and she wasn't sure if she could continue her education because she is an illegal immigrant.
When she learned last September about the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that would grant her a temporary visa to stay in the U.S. to work or go to school, she applied.
Morales, 19, is among more than 13,300 illegal immigrants in North Carolina who applied for a federal program that defers deportation for people who arrived in the U.S. as undocumented children, according to the latest federal government figures.
In June, President Obama signed an executive order that allows illegal immigrants to temporarily stay in the U.S. if they are pursing their education or plan to enter the workforce. North Carolina is among the top 10 states with the most applications.
Morales, who was born in Guerrero, Mexico, came to the United States on her ninth birthday. She is taking classes at Robeson Community College and said she can continue her education without the fear of deportation. She plans to pursue a four-year degree in business administration.
"I think it is a really good opportunity for immigrants. Now, they can go to college and have better opportunities," she said. "I was planning to go back to Mexico. I didn't want to stay in the U.S. if I couldn't go to college or have a career. I think this is just a start for us."
Illegal immigrants hope the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will pave the way for citizenship, though the program does cause some concern. In addition to the costs, some immigrants who are eligible for the program worry that applying could give the government information to deport family members.
Opponents of the program say it's a form of amnesty and replaces American workers and voters with illegal immigrants.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services began accepting applications Aug. 15 and have taken 355,869 applications from across the country. So far, 102,965 applications have been approved, and more than 157,000 are under review.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates 1.7 million illegal immigrants could be eligible for the work visas. Immigrants who are younger than 30 and arrived in the U.S. illegally before they were 16 can apply for a work permit as long as they are in high school or have graduated from a U.S. high school, earned their GED or served in the military. The applicant cannot have a criminal record.
Enrique Esquivel's family left their home Zacatecas, Mexico, when he was 4. Esquivel, now 17, applied for the program in August. He hired a lawyer to assist with the paperwork -- fingerprints, a criminal background check and documentation showing he has lived in the U.S. for at least five consecutive years. He received his work visa in early October.
"Now, there is not that high of a risk of me being deported," he said. "It would have been difficult for me to go back to Mexico. I have lived most of my life here."
When he was a freshman, he enrolled in the Robeson Early College High School at Robeson Community College to save money on his education. When he graduates, Esquivel will have a high school diploma and an associate's degree. The deferred action program will help Esquivel put his associate's degree in industrial system technology to use, he said.
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