At last, the wait is over for Pedro Ramos Ortiz.

Starting Wednesday, he and thousands of other young illegal immigrants in Minnesota can apply to stay under a new policy that would spare them from being deported.

"I had to wait for a miracle and here it is," said Ortiz, 27.

Two months ago, President Obama announced that the federal government will allow 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. The president's action does not offer citizenship or permanent residency.

As many as 1.7 million people nationwide may be eligible to escape the threat of deportation under the new policy.

Meanwhile, local immigration lawyers say they're preparing for a deluge of clients wanting to apply.

"In my office, everybody's nervous," said Mary Baquero, an attorney in Minneapolis. "We're talking about how we're going to handle it, because a lot of people are going to apply." Her office has scheduled conferences for Thursday, Friday and Saturday for immigrants interested in applying; already, those sessions are full, she said.

It's been a busy summer for the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, which serves low-income immigrants.

The center has hosted public workshops and has fielded phone calls from people wanting more information about the new policy.

"We've received a lot of interest," said John Keller, the center's executive director. He estimated his office has seen more than 300 people who appeared eligible for the deportation relief.

Karen Ellingson, another local immigration attorney, said right now many families have been gathering school transcripts, vaccination records and other files in anticipation of the start of the filing period Wednesday. They need those documents to prove their child has lived here for at least five years -- one of the eligibility requirements.

"It's kind of fun -- they're bringing in old school pictures, certificates that say, 'yay, you read 10 books.' They sit and sift through this stuff and have some laughs about how they looked eight years ago," Ellingson said.

Under the plan announced in June, illegal immigrants who are under 31 years old will be immune from deportation and eligible for renewable, two-year work permits if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history, and graduated from a U.S. high school, or earned a GED, or served in the military.

Minnesota state demographer Susan Brower estimated between 2,500 and 3,900 people in Minnesota are eligible for the deportation relief. That figure, which is hard to pin down, focuses on Latinos, Brower said.

Reassurance for families

Still, some are afraid to apply, fearing that they or family members will then be at risk for deportation. But Baquero and other immigration lawyers say they're reassured by the fact that the application process is being handled by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency and not by enforcement agencies.

Ortiz is not one of them. He's already fighting deportation, having been picked up by police last November for driving without a license.

He said he entered the United States with his family when he was 13 and graduated from high school here.

He has a court date in September, and is hoping this new provision will be his saving grace. Since he heard about the announcement, he said, he has been waiting for the filing period to begin so that he can apply.

"Everything's ready," he said. "The attorney is just waiting for which form is she supposed to fill out."

Should his request be granted, Ortiz predicts his whole life will change for the better.

"I think I can get a better job. I won't go to Mexico. For me, it will make it a lot better so I can help my parents here when they get old," he said. "I will get a driver's license, a work permit. I could buy a house, I could do a lot of stuff."

Obama's plan comes as he gears up for a tight contest for the White House. Obama has come under fire by Hispanic voters and others who have said he hasn't fulfilled a previous campaign promise to reform the nation's immigration laws.

Critics of the program, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, have called the policy back-door amnesty and say they worry about fraud.

"While potentially millions of illegal immigrants will be permitted to compete with American workers for scarce jobs, there seems to be little if any mechanism in place for vetting fraudulent applications and documentation submitted by illegal immigrants," Smith said Tuesday.

The Migration Policy Institute estimated last week that as many as 1.7 million people could be eligible to stay in the U.S. and legally work under the policy. The number of potential beneficiaries in Minnesota is between 10,000 and 20,000, according to the institute.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Allie Shah • 612-673-4488