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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.

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While 85 percent are from Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts south, 11 percent hail from Asia.

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To qualify for the DACA program, applicants must be under age 31, have lived in the US for five or more years consecutively, served in the military or be pursuing an education or have graduated from high school, have come to America before age 16, and have no significant criminal record. Applicants must pay a $465 fee and submit to a biometric scan and background investigation.

Nearly 60 percent already have jobs. Of the estimated 80,000 potential DACA applicants who have completed a college degree, 6,400 have achieved a degree beyond a bachelor’s, according to MPI.

DACA may also spur more of the eligible population to go back to school. Twenty percent of the total DREAMer population isn’t enrolled in school and lacks a high school diploma, MPI estimates. Now that immigration authorities say enrollment in high school or GED classes qualifies as proof for the program’s education requirement, dispirited potential DREAMers have a powerful incentive to return to the classroom, say immigrant advocates.

“They are getting education for a reason: to get a job,” says Scarlette Kim, an undocumented Korean immigrant currently studying at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a phone interview. With a work permit now dangling at the end of the education ladder, “they’re running toward it,” says Ms. Kim, who works with a local Korean-American organization to educate undocumented immigrants and who plans to apply under DACA.

And in running toward legitimate employment, immigrant advocates say, DREAMers not only will be able to realize their ambitions, but also will be able to show what they bring to the nation.

Mr. Acuña, for example, took enough Advanced Placement classes in high school to finish two associate’s degrees in the span of one. Acuña hopes to study at the University of Maryland and eventually become a neurosurgeon, but that depends in part on whether Maryland affirms a state version of the DREAM Act allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates. 

A study released Tuesday finds that immigrants have been a driving force for entrepreneurship in recent years. Immigrants started more than one-quarter of all businesses last year, according to the report from the Partnership for a New American Economy, more than double their share of the population. One in 10 Americans, the study continues, works at an immigrant-owned business.

That enterprising spirit is something immigrant advocates say they see among the DREAMers.

“We have some amazing DREAMers that have been so influential and have law degrees and PhDs and all kinds of things, so it’s really exciting what they’re able to accomplish,” says Wendy Cervantes, vice president of immigration for First Focus, a children’s advocacy group.

What keeps DREAMers up at night

Still, DREAMers and their allies must navigate a difficult application process amid a tumultuous political climate.

Within a few hours of Obama’s June announcement, calls started pouring into the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) from DREAMers, teachers, principals, and parents looking for guidance. They haven't stopped since.

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