Immigrants hope to work legally

photo America Gruner, left, president of the Coalition of Latino Leaders in Dalton, Ga., assists Tania Santos, who brought her 2-year-old daughter, Valeria Majia, with her Thursday to St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

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DALTON, Ga. - When Viviana Villeda drives to Atlanta today to be photographed and fingerprinted by immigration officers, she will be one step closer to finding out whether she will be able to work legally and not worry about being deported.

At first she was afraid to come forward and risk being denied, she said. Her hands were sweating when she dropped off her application package at the post office.

But "sometimes you just need to have faith," said the 21-year-old who wants to become a nurse.

On June 15, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that some unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children who meet other criteria, including having a high school diploma, could apply for a reprieve.

Those approved will get a two-year deportation deferral and can apply for a work permit. Both can be renewed every two years as long as the policy still is in place.

Within just a month 82,000 young immigrants nationwide applied to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. So far, close to 64,000 have scheduled appointments for fingerprinting and photographing - which ICE refers to as "biometrics" - and 29 applications had been approved as of Sept. 13.

Villeda applied Aug. 23 and two weeks ago got her notice to appear in Atlanta for her biometric appointment. A fingerprint appointment usually takes a couple of months to get scheduled.

For an agency that has had problems with backlogs, the fact that so many applications have been processed already is a promising start, said Muzaffar Chishti, with the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that studies the movement of people.

"The quick announcement followed by quick acceptance of applications meant this was a program really put together in short notice," he said.

This is the most significant immigration initiative since the 1986 amnesty signed by President Ronald Reagan that led to the legalization of about 3 million people, he said. This program, though, doesn't provide legal status.

There are about 60,000 potential applicants in Georgia and 10,000 to 20,000 in Tennessee, according to the Migration Policy Institute.


On Thursday morning, parents and teenagers trickled into St. Joseph's Catholic Church for an information session hosted by the Coalition of Latino Leaders.

They walked past tables and printed white signs reading, "Am I eligible? Do I have all the documents? Did I bring all the copies?" before sitting down with an immigration attorney.

Edwin Cuna, 18, brought photocopies of childhood pictures, report cards, his 2012 Southeast Whitfield High School diploma and vaccination records. After a few minutes with an attorney, he was ready to mail the package and $465 application fee.

He was only 3 years old when his parents brought him to Georgia. He said he's looking forward to being able to work to help his family and study criminal justice.

"I see a lot of injustices, and I want to make things right," he said.

For him, the announcement gave him hope. "I thought, 'I can work, I can do something with my life,'" he said.

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