Getting a reprieve: Young illegal immigrants see first signs of Obama’s deferred action program

Liz Goodwin

A month ago, Gabriela Tepe was almost out of hope. An immigration appeals court told the 21-year-old Oklahoma State University student that she and her 20-year-old brother, Angel, would need to leave the country by July 3 or face deportation. The siblings, who have lived in Oklahoma City since they were 4 and 2 years old, would be celebrating the Fourth of July in Guatemala, a country they don't even remember.

"My parents never talked about [Guatemala,]" Gabriela Tepe told Yahoo News. She didn't find out she wasn't a U.S. citizen until she was in the fifth grade, and had to do a school project that asked where she was born.

Tepe refused to let herself believe that she would actually have to leave her family, friends and country after a yearslong legal battle to stay. Deeply religious, she was holding out for a miracle. "It really scares us to go back," she said. "We completely Americanized ourselves over here."

On June 15, Tepe saw on the news that President Barack Obama had announced that his administration would no longer deport illegal immigrants under the age of 30 who had been brought to the country as children, graduated from high school and committed no serious crimes. "They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one—on paper," Obama said then, adding that this class of immigrants had no control over their guardians' decision to bring them to the country illegally.

Mitt Romney has criticized Obama's big, election-year announcement, dubbed the deferred action plan, as just a political ploy. Others who favor stricter immigration enforcement say it sends a message that it's acceptable to come to the country without documentation. But for the estimated 1 million young illegal immigrants who, like Gabriela and Angel, may qualify for the new temporary legal status, the program represents their best shot at a normal life.

When Tepe heard the news, she felt flooded with relief. Her parents, who were granted green cards a few years earlier, and her two younger siblings, both American-born and thus citizens, were finally able to relax.

"It's just a big miracle," she said. "God does really do big things when you least expect it. It was down to the wire."

Doug Stump, Tepe's lawyer, said that after Obama's announcement he quickly sent Angel and Gabriela's information to immigration officials in Washington, and was informed just two days before the Tepes were required to leave that their petition would be granted. The officials also told Stump that his clients were the first in Oklahoma to qualify for Obama's deferred action program for young people.

"Never did it cross my mind that we would be among the first ones to get it and that it could happen so quickly," Tepe said.

On Aug. 15, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is scheduled to begin allowing young illegal immigrants to actively apply for legal status and a work permit under the new program. The status would last for two years and be renewable, but applicants will have to prove they entered the country as children, graduated from high school and haven't committed crimes.

A lot is still unknown about what the process of applying for legal status for these young people will be like, including how much it will cost to apply, what kind of documents applicants will have to provide, or even for how long the program will be offered. Romney hasn't specifically addressed what he would do to the program if he were elected in November, leaving its fate unclear.

But Stump, who is also the incoming president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, thinks people who want to apply should do so as early as possible, in case backlogs slow the process. He calculates that the USCIS application workload could increase by 25 percent due to the change. (About 4.5 million immigration-related applications were filed with the agency last year, and experts estimate that between 800,000 to 1.4 million people are eligible to apply for this new status.)

The Tepes were able to qualify early because, like nearly 300,000 other immigrants, their immigration cases were already pending in court. The Department of Homeland Security didn't respond to questions from Yahoo News about how many people have been granted deferred action under the program since its announcement in June.

Tepe, meanwhile, has been enjoying her deportation reprieve. She's written a letter to her fellow churchgoers, thanking them for their support and for writing letters to Immigration and Customs Enforcement on her behalf. And she's been working seven days a week as a waitress to help pay for her college courses next year. Her dream: to attend medical school and become a pediatrician. She hopes to practice stateside.