SANTA ANA, Calif. — Thousands of young illegal immigrants lined up Wednesday hoping for the right to work legally in America without being deported.
The Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which began Wednesday, could expand the rights of more than 1 million young illegal immigrants by giving them work permits, though they would not obtain legal residency here or a path to citizenship.
Less than three months before an expected tight presidential election, the new immigration program is mired in controversy. Republican critics accuse President Barack Obama of drafting the plan to boost his political standing with Latinos ahead of November's vote and say the program favors illegal immigrants over unemployed citizens during dismal economic times.
To be eligible, immigrants must prove they arrived in the United States before they turned 16, are 30 or younger, have been living in the country at least five years and are in school or graduated or served in the military. They cannot have been convicted of certain crimes or otherwise pose a safety threat.
Initial concerns by immigrant rights groups that federal authorities might take a tough approach on applications or that a Republican presidential victory could unravel applicants' gains have largely been pushed aside by massive interest from thousands of young people eager to work.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney does not support so-called Dream Act legislation for illegal immigrants who attend college — a key group that Obama aims to reach with this program. The former Massachusetts governor has also criticized the deferred action program but has not said it he would reverse it, pledging instead an unspecified "civil but resolute" long-term fix to illegal immigration.
So far, the measure has won favor for Obama along Latinos — many who view immigration as a litmus test when choosing a political candidate, said Manuel Pastor, director of the University of Southern California's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
Some Republican lawmakers have accused Obama of sidestepping Congress and creating a backdoor amnesty program with the high potential for fraud.
A decision on each application could take several months, and immigrants have been warned not to leave the country while their application is pending.