"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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