Amid warnings that it is not a permanent solution, the federal government launched an immigration relief initiative Wednesday for more than 1.5 million young illegal immigrants who could seek work permits, protection from deportation and, in Calfornia, a driver's license.
The state Department of Motor Vehicles plans to begin issuing driver's licenses in the coming months, state officials said late Wednesday. Licensing undocumented immigrants has been illegal in California, but the relief plan involves enough documents to comply with state law.
Immigration offices and advocacy groups had braced for a rush of interest, but it could take weeks for applicants to learn whether they officially qualify for work permits. Many are in no hurry to apply on the first day and will wait to send in their forms.
"We've been pretty inundated," said Ellen Dumesnil, director of the nonprofit International Institute of the Bay Area, which is helping immigrant families with the applications. "We're doing group workshops, individual consultations."
"The challenge is going to be -- for all immigrant organizations -- our capacity," she said.
The work permits are for immigrants 30 or younger who were brought to the United States illegally before they turned 16, and only if they graduate high school or served in the military, haven't committed any serious crimes and have lived in the country continuously since 2007. They also must pay a $465 fee.
Those who qualify can get two-year¿ renewable work permits and won't be deported but will not be granted legal permanent residency or citizenship.
Because beneficiaries get federal work permits and Social Security numbers, they become "temporary legal residents," which means a 1993 statewide ban on illegal immigrant drivers no longer will apply to them, said DMW spokesman Mike Marando.
Other states are taking a different approach. Arizona's governor on Wednesday signed an order Wednesday banning driver's licenses to those who benefit from the federal relief.
In what appeared to be the nation's biggest event marking the new relief, about 11,000 people gathered at Chicago's Navy Pier on Wednesday morning, most of them teenagers and young adults, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates up to 1.7 million people could be eligible for relief, about 950,000 of them immediately. The remainder are either too young to apply or haven't yet met all the requirements, such as having a high school diploma or its equivalent.
The young applicants are "some of the bravest young people in our nation, sharing their stories of hardship and hope," said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Campbell, at a San Jose news conference Wednesday morning where three immigrants who plan to apply for the "deferred action" program spoke at the Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County headquarters.
About 500 people attended its deferred-action informational meetings, said Robert Yabes, Catholic Charities' immigration program director, and the agency was bracing Wednesday for as many as 300 of them to fill out the applications.
But Zelica Rodriguez, the policy and organizing program director for Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network, warned that "even though this has been a long time coming, this is not the Dream Act," but only a temporary reprieve. The Dream Act was a failed congressional initiative to give conditional permanent residency to young illegal immigrants.
"The only solution is comprehensive immigration reform," she said. "This is a first step; we need to continue to organize."
Yabes and others warned that the forms require some legal expertise to complete, and applicants should avoid notarios -- unlicensed immigration "consultants" -- who lack that knowledge or might try to scam applicants by charging for the free forms or promising expedited processing.
Information about the relief and how to apply is available at www.uscis.gov/childhoodarrivals.
For immigrant advocates, the policy is "the best news we've had in a long time," Dumesnil said. "On the other hand, it's so imperfect in that it doesn't really provide legal status. It's that proverbial blessing and curse."
Many are warning those who are eligible to not apply hastily.
Prerna Lal, 27, meets all the criteria but is waiting to find out if she can instead get something better: permanent legal residency sponsored by her U.S. citizen grandmother. She is concerned about youths who are applying for the program even if they have something in their background that could disqualify them.
"It's very important for people to know that the information can be used against them. This is not a benevolent process," said Lal, a former Antioch resident from Fiji who is studying law at George Washington University. Her advice: Get a lawyer first.
Staff writer Josh Richman contributed to this report.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris said in a statement Wednesday that her office has not fielded any complaints about scams but warned immigrants eligible for the federal "deferred action" relief policy to find out if a lawyer they consult is registered with the State Bar of California by checking online at www.calbar.ca.gov or by calling 1-800-843-9053. Immigration consultants must also register with the state; to find out if they are, call 916-653-3984.