Armed with school transcripts, immunization records and pay stubs from the jobs they work illegally, hundreds of young Minnesota immigrants are coming out of the shadows to learn how they can apply for a new program that would allow them to stay and work here legally.
"I'm excited, but at the same time nervous," said Ana Lara, 23, one of about 100 people who attended an information workshop held Wednesday in Northfield and hosted by the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. "It's kind of like waiting for a new life to start."
Last summer, President Obama announced that the federal government would give illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children and who have attended school here the chance to stay and receive a work permit for at least two years. The president's action does not offer citizenship or permanent residency.
The application period for the new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program began Aug. 15 and will end in two years.
In the program's first month, more than 82,000 applications were filed from across the country, according to data recently released by the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services -- the federal agency handling the requests.
Of those applications, 29 have been fully processed so far, and all 29 were approved. State-by-state breakdowns have not yet been released.
"It's a tremendous number of people in a short amount of time for a brand-new program," said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota in St. Paul. "I could double the number of staff working on these, and we'd still have a lot of work to do."
To date, 1,500 people have attended the five information workshops put on by the Immigrant Law Center and held in cities across the state. That includes 700 people at the first workshop in Minneapolis. More sessions are scheduled for outstate Minnesota this month.
Under the new federal policy, illegal immigrants who are under 31 years old will be immune from deportation and will be eligible for renewable, two-year work permits if they qualify. Among the requirements: They must have no criminal record, and they must have come to the United States before they turned 16.
'Don't know if it's good choice'
At the Northfield workshop, attendees went from station to station, meeting one-on-one with volunteers.
At the first station, they met with volunteers who reviewed their supporting documents to determine if they had everything needed for the application. Next, they waited in line to talk to attorneys and schedule appointments to officially file their applications.
With no appeals process available, Keller urged the young immigrants to take their time and make sure they have everything in order before submitting their forms.
Lara graduated from Northfield High School and now works as a waitress. She dreams of going to college and having a career, perhaps as a nurse.
It was a dream that until now was out of reach. "I think it's like this for everyone," she said of her undocumented peers. "We finished high school and we're just stuck."
The way she sees it, the program is a rare opportunity that she can't afford to miss. "We have to do it now before something else happens," she said.
She left the workshop with an appointment to file her application with a lawyer next month.
The Lopez family was decidedly undecided as they waited to speak with a lawyer at the workshop.
"We are not sure exactly how this works," said Juan Lopez, who came with his wife and his son, Juan E. Lopez -- the one eligible to apply. "We don't know if it's a good choice to take it."
The elder Lopez said he worries what could happen to his son in the future if the federal government collects all his information from the application, and then the policy changes someday.
"It's something we need to think about -- is it a good decision to take this program, or is it better to stay away from it?" he said.
But he is tempted by the hope the program offers his son. "He can have the chance to take a better job and get to college," he said. "He can keep growing in school."
Ultimately, Juan Lopez said he will leave it up to his son to decide.
The younger Lopez was still weighing his options. "I'm kind of stuck in the middle," he said. "It could just be a scam in the end."
A high school student, he said he wants to go to college and study either math or life sciences.
Juan Lopez, the father, shrugged when asked if he was afraid that his son's application may put himself and his wife, who are both undocumented, at a greater risk of being deported.
The fear of being found out, he said, is always there.
But, he added, "we're not terrified about it."
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488