While some remain wary about coming forward, 72,000 young illegal immigrants sought work permits from the Obama administration in the past month, and a small, undisclosed number learned their applications were approved in recent days.
Soon, Mayra Gomez could be one of them. She and her husband, a private and mechanic in the U.S. Army Reserve, received a letter at their East Palo Alto home on Monday from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services telling Gomez to come to the agency's San Francisco office to get her fingerprints taken.
Once a sign of a looming deportation, this fingerprint check was a message to Gomez she had one final step before she can get a work permit.
"I'm thinking about it all the time," said the 23-year-old UC Berkeley graduate, whose family brought her across the border from Mexico when she was a child.
Gomez declined a well-paying job offer this summer because she has no legal right to work, but that could change soon. More than just a job, however, Gomez said she is looking forward to living without the constant fear she could be torn apart from her U.S. citizen husband and their 1-year-old son.
Demographers estimate more than 1.2 million young illegal immigrants, and about 350,000 in California, could immediately qualify for the Obama administration's two-year work permits and protection from deportation, but nationwide only 72,000 have applied in the first month since the Obama administration began accepting applications on Aug. 15.
Officials said it will take an average of four to six months before applicants get an answer. For Gomez and some others in the Bay Area, however, the notice is coming sooner. She applied on Aug. 28 and has her fingerprint appointment in two weeks.
The federal government said it began approving a small number of applications this week, and since late last week has been arranging "biometric" appointments to check fingerprints for any criminal background.
"By approving some cases quickly, it alleviates some of the fears of other applicants," said Mark Silverman of the San Francisco-based Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
An immigration lawyer in the Bay Area since 1983, Silverman said he was pleasantly surprised that so many people have already applied but knows more will come out of the shadows once they see signs that the promised relief actually works.
"The same thing happened during the amnesty program of '87 and '88," Silverman said. "After people saw their friends and neighbors were getting their applications approved, that encouraged more people to apply."
The immigration agency emailed San Francisco resident Sarah Souza on Sept. 14 informing her it received her application and was routing it to a Southern California processing center. Never before was Souza so delighted to get a form letter.
"I was a little emotional," she said. "I feel like I'm part of this country. I just need the opportunity to show that I can do great things for this country, that I'm not a criminal."
Souza and her sister first entered the United States to visit Disneyland on a youth trip from Brazil in the summer of 2001. She was 13, her sister 10, and their tourist visas expired in three months, but they stayed to join their mother, a nanny who had been living in San Francisco for two years.
Those eligible for relief must have come to the United States before they were 16, not be older than 30, lived here continuously since 2007, have a record free of serious crimes, graduated high school or are in school or military. The administration relief defers deportations but doesn't offer the benefits of legal immigration or citizenship, only a temporary work permit that can be renewed after two years.
Many who are eligible have been cautious about applying, some fearing that coming forward could leave them exposed if Republican Mitt Romney wins the election and reverses the Obama administration directive next year.
Romney has criticized the Obama directive as politically-motivated and said he would replace it with a long-term solution, but hasn't said what that solution would be. The Republican National Convention made little mention last month of the directive, which is widely popular among Latino voters, but House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said on Thursday that the fast-moving relief program was putting the country in danger.
"Such a quick turnaround for these amnesty applications raises serious concerns about fraud and a lack of thorough vetting," Smith said in a statement.
In contrast, the Democratic National Convention embraced the young immigrants, dubbed "Dreamers" after the long-sought Dream Act that would have granted them legal residency but failed to pass through Congress in 2010.
At crowded informational meetings around the Bay Area, Silverman has encouraged young immigrants with the cleanest records to apply soon because he knows that the Obama administration has political reasons to show that its relief is working before the November election, and also knows it would be politically hard for Romney, if he wins, to turn the clock back against those who already applied.
Contact Matt O'Brien at 510-293-2465.