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.
"I would not have been able to get a job with my degree without the work permit," Esquivel said. "I would have had to work under the table or get a job in the fields."
Esquivel said the deferred action policy is a small step toward the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, also known as the DREAM Act. The act is a bipartisan bill that was first introduced to Congress in 2001 and was reintroduced in 2009 and 2011.
Congress has failed to pass the DREAM Act, which would have provided a pathway for young illegal immigrants to obtain citizenship if they pursue their college education or serve in the military.
"I would like to see some movement on the DREAM Act for people who are older than us and who are not fortunate to have the opportunity to apply for this program," Esquivel said.
Political action organizations, such as the Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, see the deferred action policy as unconstitutional. Critics say the executive order would displace American workers, depreciate wages and create more tax burdens for American citizens.
William Gheen, president of the Raleigh-based Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, said the organization is appealing to Congress to stop the deferred action policy.
"This is a dictate. This is an order. It is not a law," he said. "This contradicts both the U.S. Constitution and federal law. As far as we can tell, there is no remedy for the U.S. citizenry."
Gheen said the deferred action policy will attract more illegal immigrants and "cause more hardship on American citizens caused by illegal immigrants."
Proponents of the policy say the executive order is a stopgap for young immigrants who have been raised in the United States.
"Those who came who were less than 16 years old have been educated in North Carolina, and their parents have been paying taxes -- whether it is sales or other forms of taxes that they have paid into," said Angeline Echeverria, executive director of El Pueblo, a Hispanic/Latino advocacy and education organization in Raleigh.
"This just gives them a right to work and put into practice the education that they have received from North Carolina public schools," Echeverria said. "We see that as a value added to the state."
Echeverria said some immigrants are hesitant to apply because of the cost and the lack of trust of the government. There is a $495 fee to apply for the program. Those who are eligible face additional costs if they hire a lawyer to help with the paperwork.
"Cost continues to be a factor for some families," she said. "There are concerns about revealing information to the government."
Sonia Lopez was 8 when she and her family came from Mexico. Lopez, now 18, proudly held her work permit in her hand as she talked about her desire to join the U.S. Marines. She will be able to join once she becomes a legal immigrant. Lopez recently graduated from Red Springs High School.
"I was afraid to apply because I thought that immigration would come in and deport me and my family," she said. "That was one of the things that was holding me back from doing it. My mom was like, 'Don't worry about it. If it benefits you, then you should apply.' "
Lopez was approved two weeks after applying for the work permit.
"When I first saw all my stuff, it was like all my hopes and dreams came true," she said. "I knew I could better my life."
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