When Sarita Santillan moved from Peru to Maryland with her family in 2003, she was just 11 years old — and had little clue how hard it would be to stay here.
This week, Santillan, 20, an illegal immigrant who lives in Greektown, will be among more than a million undocumented residents who are expected to apply for a reprieve from deportation. The new program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is being offered by the Obama administration starting Wednesday.
"I should be able to work and help pay my way through college now. This is a wonderful opportunity for me and for others like me," said Santillan, a 2009 graduate of Digital Harbor High.
The program, announced June 15, allows young immigrants who were brought to America as children to stay and work in the country for two years without fear of being deported.
Immigration authorities are bracing for a deluge of applications as more than 1.2 million young illegal immigrants become eligible to apply for the program, President Obama's most ambitious immigration initiative to date.
But even before the first request is filed, critics and advocates are warning of potential budget shortfalls and a logjam of paperwork that could mar the program, delay processing and facilitate fraud.
Advocacy groups have planned public celebrations, legal aid seminars and other events in major cities to herald a plan that has sparked rejoicing and relief in immigrant communities — and anger among Republicans who view it as a White House ploy for Latino support in an election year and a backdoor amnesty that usurps congressional authority.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which will review the applications, is expecting about 1.2 million applications on top of the 6 million applications it normally adjudicates for citizenship, residency and work visas every year, officials said. That's up from 800,000 expected when Obama announced the plan in June.
"The undocumented youth I've met are so excited about finally being able to be counted, there will be a push to apply on the first day," said David Leopold, an immigration attorney in Cleveland, Ohio. "But I think people should take a breath and make sure they do it right, not right now."
Under the program, undocumented immigrants younger than 31 who came to the United States before the age of 16 are eligible if they are enrolled in school, graduated from high school or served in the U.S. armed forces, and have no criminal record, among other criteria.
Getting a work permit allows an immigrant to obtain a valid Social Security number, apply for a driver's license, open a bank account and gain other important benefits.
Federal officials say they have little idea how many immigrants will apply within any given state or city, but on the day before the program began, Maryland wasn't lacking for eager potential applicants.
Santillan, the Peru native, is a sophomore general studies major at Baltimore City Community College. She'll now be eligible for a greater variety of scholarships, she said, which might give her a chance to transfer to Towson University or Morgan State University. And in any case, the prospect of working will allow her to help support herself.
Joel Sati, 19, of Silver Spring, a native of Kenya, has been working toward his dream of becoming a neuroscientist, taking courses at the Rockville campus of Montgomery College in hopes of transferring to the University of Maryland, College Park for further study.
Sati, who moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 9, said that as an illegal immigrant, he has been unable to get a driver's license, which has meant daily commutes to the campus by bus or Metro, which can take two hours per day.
And while his parents have done everything they can to support his ambitions, he has been unable to return the favor by earning money of his own.
"This program will give me a bit of financial freedom and freedom in terms of mobility," he said. "It's an excellent opportunity."
Veronica Sarazia, 17, of Beltsville, who moved from El Salvador to this country with her family when she was 10, said she has had trouble figuring out how she might be able to fulfill her twin ambitions — studying psychology and eventually joining the U.S. Air Force — until the initiative became an option.
In addition, her mother has fallen ill and become unable to work, a situation that has left her feeling helpless.
"Now, I should be able to have a stable job and have decent pay that I could live on [to help] my family," she said. "And this [program] might be just one step toward many other wonderful things we can make happen."
Advocacy groups estimate more than 1.7 million teens and young adults may be eligible, although it's unknown how many will apply or how quickly. Those granted approval will be given a two-year deferral from deportation and legal authorization to work.