The program offers far fewer benefits than the sweeping DREAM Act, which failed to win approval in Congress in 2010. That legislation, which Obama supported, would have granted legal status to undocumented youths.
"Deferred action does not provide lawful status or a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship," Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a conference call with reporters. He said each application "will be examined for potential fraud and reviewed on a case-by-case basis."
Mayorkas said application forms would be posted at http://www.USCIS.gov/childhoodarrivals, and could be submitted starting Wednesday. He said each application would likely take several months to process, and its progress can be followed online.
The program was designed and rolled out in 60 days — breakneck speed for a federal agency.
"It is going to be a huge challenge," said Doris Meissner, who was head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000. "The start-off will be very important. How it is handled and the time it takes to process them will set the tone."
Obama administration officials say the program will aid law enforcement by allowing authorities to focus on deporting convicted criminals, instead of students and others with strong family ties in the United States. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement expelled nearly 400,000 people, a record tally. More than half had criminal records, or were repeat violators of immigration law.
Some activists worried that a future president could overturn Obama's order authorizing the reprieves, and that immigrants who come out of the shadows and turn over their paperwork to authorities have no guarantees that they will not be deported if their applications are rejected.
When he unveiled the plan two months ago, Obama called it "a temporary stopgap measure" rather than a solution to the nation's immigration morass.
No new workers have been hired to review the school records, sworn affidavits and other documentation each applicant is required to file. And no funds have been appropriated to pay added processing costs. Officials said the initial budget will be covered by the $465-per-application fee, and as more fees are collected, new staff will be hired.
An application for an undocumented farmworker to apply for legal amnesty under a program signed by President Reagan in 1986 cost the immigration agency $1,130 to process, two members of Congress wrote in an Aug. 7 letter to Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security.
In the past, not charging enough to review applications has "resulted in an enormous backlog of legal immigration benefits applications and very long processing wait times for legal immigrants and aspiring U.S. citizens," wrote Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, and Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican.
On Tuesday, Smith denounced the deferral program as a "magnet for fraud and abuse" designed to shore up Latino support for Obama. "There seems to be little if any mechanism in place for vetting fraudulent applications and documentation submitted by illegal immigrants," Smith said in a statement.
Officials said application fees will be waived in extreme circumstances, such as children living in foster care or in acute poverty.
"There has been a tremendous response," said Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, an advocacy organization in Seattle, Wash.
Among those waiting to apply is Manuel Bartsch, 25, who came to the U.S. from Germany with relatives when he was 11. He says he only learned when he took college placement exams in 2005 that he didn't have legal residency. He has faced the threat of deportation ever since.
Now Bartsch is collecting transcripts and class schedules from Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, to submit with his application. If he is granted a work permit, he wants an internship in a politician's office, a job he can't apply for now.
"With this immigration issue, politics has caught my interest," Bartsch said in a telephone interview.
And Sarazia, the El Salvador native, said there was no longer any good reason to defer her dreams. She has had a couple of months to think about things and get her documents in order and was looking forward to applying Wednesday.
"I have all the materials ready. I can't think of any good reason to wait," she said.
Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article
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