Obama administration officials announced plans Friday to immediately grant administrative relief to young people who would be eligible for the DREAM Act. Those who qualify will not be deported and will be granted work permits.
People who meet the following criteria will be eligible deferred action on a case-by-case basis:
• Came to the United States under the age of 16.
• Have continuously resided in the United States for a least five years and are present in the United States.
• Are currently in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a general education development certificate or are honorably discharged veterans of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States.
• Have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.
• Are not above the age of 30.
Source: Department of Homeland Security
• Visit www.uscis.gov
• Beginning Monday, people can also call the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services hotline at 1-800-375-5283 or Immigration and Customs Enforcement's hotline at 1-888-351-4024 during regular business hours with questions or to request more information on the process.
Every time Mariela Cruz heard Congress was voting on a bill that might help her legalize her status, her eyes were glued to the C-SPAN network.
And every time the bill failed, her dreams of finishing school and becoming a lawyer were crushed.
"You feel you are so close to your goal, you can almost feel it and then 'puff,' it was gone," said the 20-year-old Mexico native who was 8 years old when her mother brought her to Georgia.
On Friday, Cruz' hopes were once again lifted -- and this time it might actually happen.
The Obama administration is going to grant administrative relief on a case-by-case basis to young people brought into the country illegally by their parents who meet certain criteria, including having a high school diploma and being enrolled in college.
The change in policy could impact 1.4 million noncitizens, according to a Migration Policy Institute analysis -- 40,000 of them in Georgia. No numbers were provided for Tennessee.
Deferred action on deportation will be offered those between the ages of 15 to 30 who came to the United States before the age of 16, have been in the country for at least five years and have no criminal history. They can apply for a work permit that's valid for two years.
But while immigration advocacy groups, religious leaders and immigrant communities were quick to praise the president's announcement, others were as quick to deem it a political stunt, including area Republican lawmakers.
"I am disappointed by this political stunt and extremely concerned that the Obama administration is once again circumventing Congress by unilaterally changing the law of the land," Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., wrote in an email.
Tennessee Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, both Republicans, said it was an issue that should be addressed in Congress.
"The president has a bad habit of forgetting that under our Constitution, there are two other branches of government," Alexander wrote in an email. "Some of these ideas have merit. ... But a serious, long-term solution to a difficult issue requires the president and Congress acting together."
Corker called it an "outrageous overreach of executive power by the administration."
But President Barack Obama said these actions are needed "to mend a nation's immigration policy to make it more fair, more efficient and more just."
"They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one ... on paper," he said Friday in the White House Rose Garden.
Cruz is a junior majoring in political science at Birmingham Southern College, a private liberal arts school. She sells knick-knacks at a flea market and Mary Kay cosmetics to help pay for tuition. But she knows she's in the right place because her school has a good reputation for sending its students to law school -- her ultimate dream.
"I would love to one day graduate and help with these [immigration] policies and benefit the community somehow," she said.
Obama emphasized there's still a need for a long-term immigration solution from Congress, including passing the DREAM Act. The act is a bipartisan bill introduced multiple times in the past decade that would offer a path to legal status for people brought to the United States without authorization as children and who graduate from a U.S. high school and complete two years of college or the military, among other criteria. Last year, the act passed the House but failed by a handful of votes in the Senate.
"There is still time for Congress to pass the DREAM Act this year, because these kids deserve to plan their lives in more than two year increments," Obama said.
This year, Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican whose name has been tossed about as a potential vice president for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, has discussed his own version of DREAM Act.
The Obama administration's change in policy doesn't offer a path to citizenship, instead it re-emphasizes the administration's effort to focus on deporting those with criminal backgrounds and repeat border crossers, building on the prosecutorial initiatives undertaken by the government last year.
Obama's action now places more pressure on Republicans, according to experts.
"It clearly has some political implications," said Bruce Oppenheimer, professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. "This will require a reaction from the [Mitt] Romney campaign and Republicans."
The Romney campaign is starting a bus tour this weekend and, while Romney wanted to talk about jobs, he is now going to be asked to talk about immigration, Oppenheimer said.
Both presidential campaigns are focusing on the Latino vote, which can be a deciding factor in some key states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.
In the Chattanooga area, community leaders say this is a step in the right direction.
"This is good news for many young people in Dalton who came here as children and know no other home than Dalton," said Paul Williams, priest at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Dalton, Ga. "Immigrants are tired of being used as a political football, and no human being is 'illegal.'
"This decision moves the debate forward to a more humane solution to a problem created by politicians, not honest, hard-working people," he said.
Maria Zamora, board president of the Latinos for Education and Justice organization in Calhoun, Ga., said she's glad Obama is starting to hear the voice of the community.
"I'm hoping this is step one in his support for what we thought we were going to get with [President] George Bush in terms of immigration reform that is more humane and economically feasible for the United States," she said.
And while others are optimistic, they said there are still a lot of questions on how the change is going to be implemented.
"This showed common sense to me, but this isn't the end of the road by any means," said Mike Feely, a local community leader who has worked with the Hispanic community in Tennessee since the late 1980s.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has 60 days to set up a process that will allow people to come forward and apply for deferred action.
"A program of this scale will present significant implementation challenges and will need to be addressed with increased capacity, training and oversight," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at New York University Law School.
The U.S. immigration agency will face the need to determine eligibility for as many as 890,000 people, he said, when it already processes more than 5 million applications for immigration benefits annually.
"While much of the immediate focus is on the numbers of people who might gain relief and assessing the political implications of [Friday's] announcement, there are real capacity and implementation issues that must be assessed," said Michael Fix, the institute's senior vice president.
But for students like Cruz, it's a step closer to success.
"I'm very happy ... you always have that weight [of being unauthorized] on your back."