The most expansive immigration relief policy in 25 years will begin Wednesday, when thousands of young illegal immigrants in the Bay Area and nationwide are expected to apply for work permits granted by the Obama administration.
No lines will be forming at immigration offices in Oakland, San Jose and other cities. Instead, anyone interested must sign up online for work permits and protection from deportation. The forms are expected to be posted on the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services website Wednesday.
"There's some who are planning to do it immediately. They've gathered most of their documents," said Zaira Sierra, who earlier this summer formed a group of young Latinos who are helping each other prepare for the big day.
"Others are going to wait," the 23-year-old Richmond resident added. "They're unsure if it's going to work out. They have doubts about it or are scared about applying."
It's not just the online application that makes the new "deferred action for childhood arrivals" policy differ significantly from the largest ever immigration amnesty, which President Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986. The new policy is an administrative directive from the Department of Homeland Security, not a law passed through Congress, and its benefits are more modest and less clear.
Illegal immigrants became legal through the 1986 law because Congress allowed them to apply for green cards that granted them permanent legal residency, followed five years later by eligibility for citizenship.
This time, beneficiaries will have no such rights. They can receive a two-year, renewable permit to join the workforce and a promise that they won't be deported if they meet guidelines regarding their age, education and adherence to laws.
The benefits are not permanent, but Sierra said the $465 cost to apply is worth not having to fear that a routine police stop could get her deported to Mexico.
"I drive sometimes, but it's always nerve-racking because you never know when you'll be pulled over," the Berkeley City College student said.
Another big difference between now and 25 years ago is the population that will receive relief. The 1980s amnesty had one phase targeting farm workers and another targeting longtime U.S. residents, but it had no age restrictions. About 2.7 million people obtained green cards, many of them Californians and most born in Mexico.
The new leniency is strictly for immigrants younger than 31 who were brought to the United States as children. An estimated 800,000 to 1.8 million people could be eligible. Californians and Mexican-born immigrants are still the largest groups, but the undocumented population has grown more diverse and geographically dispersed.
"It's the right thing to do," President Barack Obama said when he announced the new policy in June. He blamed Republicans for blocking passage of the long-sought, formerly bipartisan Dream Act that would have granted permanent benefits -- a green card, a path to citizenship -- to the young immigrants.
But the legacy of Reagan's amnesty lingers in the political debate over illegal immigration; for Kathleen Barnes, that should have been the last chance.
"If you're here illegally, I think you should go home," said the 47-year-old unemployed tech worker from Santa Clara. "These kids who came in, it's very sad, but it's their parents who are to blame."
Barnes was disturbed by a study this month that estimated about 65,000 Bay Area immigrants could be eligible for work permits now or as they age.
She belongs to Numbers USA, a national organization that lobbies to halt illegal immigration and reduce legal immigration. She is most concerned that college graduates who are immigrants will take away jobs from U.S. citizens.
"You have people doing work under the table for a long time, working in the shadows who can now work for high-tech companies," Barnes said. "We're all competing for the same jobs."
The 1986 amnesty improved the lives of millions of immigrant families but left unsolved problems. Legal limits and backlogs in the 1990s propelled illegal border-crossings.
Sierra doesn't remember any of that. She wasn't born yet. When she was 9 in the late 1990s, at the height of illegal immigration, her family sent her from Mexico to her parents here.
She was busy last week translating emergency information in Spanish to Richmond residents affected by the Chevron refinery fire, but she said she plans to apply "as soon as I can."
"I'll be able to have a sense of security," she said.
Beginning Wednesday, immigrants who as youths entered the United States illegally may seek a renewable status of "deferred action," which removes the threat of deportation and enables them to acquire work permits. The application forms will be available online only at www.uscis.gov beginning Wednesday. Deferred action is available to people who:
Individuals with questions can call the immigration service at 800-375-5283 or go to www.uscis.gov for more detailed information.
Source: U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services