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For young illegal immigrants, a day of hugs, smiles, joy ... and qualms

Young illegal immigrants began applying Wednesday under Obama's miniature DREAM Act, which offers exemption from deportation for at least two years. There was rejoicing among them, but also apprehension.

By Staff writer / August 15, 2012

Jorge Acu–a is an undocumented immigrant who is applying for citizenship through the Dream Act which allows certain children of undocumented immigrants the possibility of citizenship. Acu–a is from Germantown, Md.

Joanne Ciccarello / Staff

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Washington

For DREAMers, Wednesday was a long time coming.

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It is the first day that the federal government is accepting applications for President Obama's miniature DREAM Act program, formally known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Young undocumented immigrants eligible for the program – those who are pursuing an education or are serving in the military – are a jumble of emotions: excited about the opportunity but also anxious about whether the government will keep its word and whether their applications will pass muster. 

“For so long, we have been attacked. There has been nothing but anti-immigrant bills, and now we have something like this," says Daniel Rodriguez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who is pursuing a law degree at Arizona State University. "It’s the first time that I’ve been in this movement in Arizona that we’ve had a win, something to celebrate.” 

Some compared the feeling Wednesday to the moment two months ago when Mr. Obama announced DACA.

“It’s like another June 15,” says Jorge Acuña, an undocumented immigrant who lives in Germantown, Md., as DREAMers shared their joy via social media and in text messages and phone calls to one another.

Mr. Rodriguez had thought he'd reach a day like this sooner. Back in 2010, he had high hopes for the DREAM Act, legislation that would put young undocumented immigrants pursuing an education or military service on a path to US citizenship. For a month that fall, he camped outside the office of Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a one-time DREAM Act supporter, to urge the senator to support the bill. The bill, approved by the House, died in the Senate. Senator McCain opposed it.

“There was a lot of crying,” recalls Mr. Rodriguez, a regional leader in a national network of DREAMers called United We Stand, in a recent phone interview. “We lost a lot of people [in the DREAM movement] after 2010. A lot of them gave up hope.”

After Obama's announcement about DACA in June, Rodriguez again saw tears – joyous ones this time. For successful applicants, the program offers renewable designation good for two years of deferred deportation, a Social Security card, and the ability to apply for a work permit.

“The meaning [of Mr. Obama’s June 15 speech was] the first major relief for our community in over 25 years," says Rodriguez. "It has really ignited this movement.”

Who are the DREAMers?

As many as 1.76 million DREAMers are eligible for the president's program, estimates the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). That includes at least 1.2 million who are eligible for the program already and another half-million who are too young today but could qualify in the future. Nearly 3 in 4 are concentrated in four states: California, Texas, Florida, and New York.

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