Three hundred young undocumented immigrants – many with their parents – poured into the Sacramento's Mexican Consulate on Wednesday to learn how to get a new lease on life, including a work permit and a Social Security card.
After years of living in fear of being deported, they celebrated the launch of the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It allows undocumented immigrants between the ages of 15 and 31, who were brought to America before the age of 16 and have no criminal record, to apply to remain in the United States and work legally.
"I want to become a full U.S. citizen and this is the first step," said Antonio Flores, 19, a Luther Burbank High School graduate whose parents brought him from Tijuana at age 12.
Flores, who plans to be a computer engineer, came with Laguna Creek graduate Evelyn Guzman, 18, who wants to be a chef and her brother, Walter Guzman, 20, a would-be video game designer. Their parents brought them from Jalisco a decade ago.
The trio are among an estimated 460,000 undocumented California immigrants who are eligible for the program. Across the country, thousands of an estimated 1.2 million undocumented people who might qualify lined up at federal buildings, Mexican consulates and other agencies to learn how to sign up.
If they qualify, they would be able to work legally and would no longer be subject to possible deportation unless they commit a serious crime.
They will be able to get California driver's licenses once the Department of Homeland Security gives them an employment authorization card, which makes them eligible for a Social Security number, said Department of Motor Vehicles spokesman Mike Marando.
These younger immigrants also would be allowed to practice law or medicine in California – a significant breakthrough, since the U.S. Justice Department has so far opposed the State Bar of California's push to grant a license to an undocumented immigrant who has passed the bar.
"The employment part of it's especially tangible and valuable because it allows people to become full and productive members of society," said UC Davis School of Law Dean Kevin R. Johnson.
"Deferred Action" status and a work permit could take anywhere from four months to a year to obtain, but would be good for two years – and could then be renewed.
But renewal could depend on who's elected president in November, Johnson said. "This is not a law passed by Congress, it's a discretionary judgment by the Obama administration."
If Mitt Romney wins, "his administration could decide to deport undocumented children, as many administrations have done," Johnson said. "The Romney people could say 'We're ending this deferred action program, we're going to revoke the work permits.' "
But, at least in the short term, the program allows immigrants whose parents brought them here as children to pursue their dreams without the cloud of deportation hanging over them. Those who came to the Sacramento consulate included would-be nurses, doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs and photographers.
To qualify, the younger immigrants must either be a high school student or graduate. They must have lived in the United States continuously for five years, and they must not have been convicted of any felonies or serious misdemeanors that would make them a possible threat.
Honorably discharged U.S. veterans of the armed forces under age 31 also qualify.
Mandeep Chahal, a UC Davis pre-med student who came from Punjab, India, as a child, thought she'd have to pursue her medical dreams outside the United States, but now looks forward to healing struggling families in California.
On Wednesday, immigrants from across Latin America came to the Mexican Consulate to meet with immigration lawyers and learn more about the process.
"I wanted to study medicine, but because I didn't have papers, I decided to switch to business to find a way to help people," said Josué Montenegro, 21, whose parents brought him here from El Salvador when he was 10. "Now I'll be able to drive, to work and to pay for my own schooling."