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Undocumented immigrants take chance of a lifetime

By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 3:07 PM EDT, Thu August 16, 2012
Sisters Ana and Juana Ramirez were brought illegally to the United States as toddlers.
Sisters Ana and Juana Ramirez were brought illegally to the United States as toddlers.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This was not amnesty or a fast track to citizenship
  • But deportation deferral allows young undocumented immigrants to stay, work in the U.S.
  • Many said they were brought here as babies and did not have a choice
  • Some worried about divulging information to authorities

Atlanta (CNN) -- They wanted to take the chance while they have it. The chance, they said, to live a life without fear.

So they lined up Wednesday at lawyers' offices and immigration help centers to complete deferred deportation applications posted online the day before.

This was not amnesty or immunity. Nor was it a shortcut to citizenship or a permanent fix to their status: each was illegally in America.

But they had hope in their hearts they would be allowed to stay in the country they knew as their own. That they could emerge from the shadows.

Sisters Ana and Juana Ramirez complete deferred deportation applications.
Sisters Ana and Juana Ramirez complete deferred deportation applications.

Ana Laura, 20, and Juana Ramirez, 23, filled out their form at Atlanta attorney Charles Kuck's suburban office. Their parents brought them to the United States from the Mexican state of Michoacan many years ago. They were just toddlers. And they were without any documentation.

Face of hope: Lining up to spend two more years in the U.S.

They finished high school in Chicago and moved to Georgia three years ago, where they get by working odd jobs here and there. They consider themselves U.S. citizens.

Only, they're not.

"I didn't have a choice to come here. I have done nothing bad here," Juana said.

On this day, when a bold new immigration policy change went into effect, the Ramirez sisters dared to dream and found themselves tempering their emotions.

"I'm scared to get my hopes up," Ana said.

Scared perhaps because there are no guarantees that come attached to President Barack Obama's executive order signed in June.

It allows undocumented immigrants under 30 who were brought to the United States as children to apply for a temporary deferral of deportation if they are in school or have finished school. It allows them to obtain work permits and gives them protection that they won't be deported in the next two years.

After that, Obama would need to sign a new order, unless legislation known as the DREAM Act, which has similar provisions, is made into law by then. If Obama loses the November election, there is no guarantee that such a policy would be in place in two years, when all applicants have to renew.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has assured prospective applicants that their information will remain confidential and will not be used to round up other undocumented family members.

Still, the risks made some stop to wonder. David Hernandez, 17, was one.

He and his brother Daniel, 15, listened carefully to Kuck as he detailed the program.

The brothers arrived in the United States on tourist visas 15 years ago. Like the Ramirez sisters, they were toddlers -- David was 3 and Daniel just 1.

Their mother, Salima Hernandez, wanted education and a better future for her children. She said she didn't worry about their legal status until she learned that they would not be able to continue their education without a government-issued ID or Social Security number.

David, now a senior in high school, and Daniel, a freshman, say they were not aware of their status until a couple of years ago, when they began to make plans for college.

"I felt that after high school I didn't have anywhere to go," David said. "I felt that if it was not something coming up soon I would end up back in Mexico."

Relief from deportation

Yes, he was concerned about revealing his status to federal authorities. They would know now who he was and how to find him.

But it was worth it.

"Whatever comes in the future is better than three months ago," he said.

The night before in Houston, thousands of people flocked to the consulates of Mexico and El Salvador to obtain passports and other identification documents from their home countries, CNN affiliate KHOU-TV reported.

The line wrapped around the building on 4506 Caroline Street, home of the Mexican consulate.

Nelly Hernanez said she'd been waiting a lifetime for this. What was a few hours more?

"I've been raised here since I was four, so I've been waiting for this day for a very long time. So it is worth it," she told KHOU.

Roger Tamez wanted to finally get a driver's license, go back to school. Maybe play football.

So many dreams in that one line.

There were dreams, too, floating in the swelling crowd at the offices of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles.

The immigrant rights group expected about 1,000 people to show up Wednesday. It's estimated that just in the Los Angeles school district alone, 218,000 young immigrants are eligible to apply.

Obama's executive order brought thousands relief but many are painfully aware of their sharpest critics who say deferred deportations and the DREAM Act are a form of backdoor amnesty. What also cuts, they said, are charges that illegal immigrants will take jobs away from rightful Americans.

Everyone has an opinion, said Martin Bustos, 23, who came to the United States from Mexico when he was 11.

But standing in line Wednesday, Bustos offered this thought: there were some jobs that most people don't want but immigrants are willing to take. And that immigrants work just as hard.

"We are like everyone else too," he said. "We are human. We have families."

In New York, Antonio Alarcon, 17, just finished high school. He flipped through the form and spoke of how the six years he has been here has transformed. He feels much more American now than Mexican.

"I work hard. I pay taxes. I have a lot to contribute," he said.

He hoped his deportation deferment application would be processed quickly so he can see his parents again. They felt worn down by the economic downturn and the stress of their illegal status and finally went back to Mexico this year.

They were not there to see their son stand on a stage and graduate at the top of his class. Alarcon hoped that the next time he saw his mother and father, he would be enrolled in college. It was another dream that the immigration policy change could help come true.

Five things to know about the changes in immigration policy

CNN's Rafael Romo, Gustavo Valdes, Rose Arce and Miguel Marquez contributed to this report.

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