Much has changed for Estefanía Navarro in two years. She got a driver's license, several years after first getting behind the wheel. She landed a summer job as a camp recruiter, which helped put her on track to graduate debt-free from Minneapolis Community and Technical College this spring. She set her sights on a career in teaching — once a pipe dream for a student without legal status.

Navarro is among about 5,000 Minnesota residents who have qualified for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a 2012 Obama administration program that gives immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children a temporary reprieve from deportation. On Wednesday, the government will begin accepting applications for an expanded version.

In Minnesota, supporters say DACA gave young people an academic boost and helped them enter the workforce on their own terms. The state has been among the friendliest to a group of young immigrants who call themselves "dreamers," after the long-stalled DREAM Act.

Meanwhile, DACA is under fire in the U.S. House, where Republicans have criticized it for eroding respect for immigration laws and stretching the president's authority to act without Congress.

For both advocates and critics, the program carries much symbolism amid a standoff over giving immigrants a path to permanent legal status.

"DACA is a validation that you are a human being here in the United States and that you have rights," said Navarro.

Benefits in Minnesota

DACA gave two-year work permits and a stay on deportation to immigrants who came to the United States before age 16 and earned a high school diploma or GED. More than 700,000 of an estimated 1.2 million youths eligible nationally have applied.

In Minnesota, 5,560 have applied for DACA, or just under half of those the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute estimates would be eligible. Mexico and other Central American countries are the best-represented among those eligible in the state, but the group also includes young people from Asia and Africa, according to the estimates.

Some local advocates believe the institute's eligibility numbers are high, but they acknowledge that many Minnesotans sat out the program. These immigrants might lack the paperwork to prove they meet the program's requirements, such as at least five years of U.S. residence. Some committed offenses that disqualify them, such as a DWI.

The $465 application fee and legal expenses can be a hurdle. And some are reluctant to turn over personal information to a temporary program with an uncertain future.

For many who did apply, DACA has paid off. A national survey of DACA recipients last year found that almost 60 percent obtained a new job, 45 percent increased their earnings, about half opened their first bank account and 57 percent got a driver's license.

In Minnesota, Juventino Meza, the founder of the youth advocacy group Navigate MN, says the program gave college-educated immigrants entry into professional careers. Meza started a job as a community liaison with the Minneapolis School District. A friend with an associate degree who was cleaning homes got a better-paying job at a nonprofit. Some who used invalid Social Security numbers or aliases to get jobs were able to come clean to their employers.

Young people have gotten their first credit cards, driver's licenses and permission to travel outside the country.

"This program has helped a lot of people who really deserve it," said Brianna Zuber, an immigration attorney whose Minneapolis firm hired a DACA recipient as a paralegal.

Educators say that by opening up those opportunities, the program has offered a new incentive — particularly for Latino students who have grappled with stubborn achievement and graduation gaps. DACA beneficiaries shared stories about persevering toward graduation at a recent Latino family night at Minneapolis South High School; the district saw an uptick of Latinos returning to earn their GEDs, a prerequisite for DACA.

Importantly, says Meza, DACA gave immigrants "a break from looking over your shoulder all the time."

A DACA-friendly state

On her way to freshman orientation in 2012, Navarro got pulled over for speeding. She had started driving without a license to get to high school and a hardware store job — even as she was haunted by stories about traffic offenses triggering deportation proceedings.

"As soon as I saw the lights flashing behind me, I was already saying goodbye to everybody in my head," said Navarro, one of three Latino students who'd graduated with honors from Minneapolis Washburn High School that spring.

The police officer gave Navarro a ticket but didn't notify immigration authorities. Still, when DACA went into effect later that summer, she and her mother were dubious. Would the government use the application information to track down and deport the family, which crossed from Mexico when Navarro was 11?

Ultimately, Navarro says, "I'd been living with constant fear and uncertainty. For me, to have some certainty was good enough."

Minnesota is among states that have gone beyond the benefits of the federal program. Right away, it let participants apply for driver's licenses.

The Legislature passed a law in 2013 that makes the state one of 18 to offer in-state college tuition to students living in the United States illegally and one of five to grant them state financial aid. According to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, 565 such students have received state grants since 2013, with an average amount of $1,200 this academic year. Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed spending an estimated $5.2 million over two years to help make up the federal grants for which students without legal status do not qualify.

Other local examples bound. The Minneapolis Foundation and the St. Paul-based Immigrant Law Center have raised $525,000 for legal services. Minneapolis set aside $50,000 to help applicants for DACA and an Obama reprieve program for parents of U.S. citizen children. School districts such as Northfield have teamed up with community groups to steer students toward applying for DACA.

On the eve of expansion

The program also has its critics. Some have questioned whether the government was prepared to screen the initial influx of applications for fraud.

Some politicians have blamed a major increase in Central American children crossing into the United States in 2013 and 2014 on the lure of DACA — even as others say a flare-up in violence back home is at the root. Most recently, the GOP-led U.S. House passed a bill funding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that would discontinue DACA. Minnesota Republican Rep. Tom Emmer, a strong supporter of defunding DACA, said that in launching and expanding the program, Obama circumvented "the constitutional process of making laws."

Meanwhile, DACA supporters have decried its limitations. Without access to health insurance subsidies under the Minnesota and federal insurance marketplaces, for instance, many DACA recipients like Navarro remain uninsured.

The expanded DACA Obama announced in November does away with the age limit of 31 and offers reprieves for three years, instead of two. The changes are expected to open the program to another several hundred thousand people nationally.

With DACA now more than two years old, the anxious questions about disclosing information to the government have tapered off at informational forums. But, says Meza, "The recent House vote makes people wary of what a Republican president would be willing to do."

DACA recipients have been on the forefront of lobbying for comprehensive immigration reform that would give immigrants in the country illegally a pathway to legal status. With the prospect for such legislation murky, the expanded DACA can feel anticlimactic.

"After DACA, we expected the next big step," said Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, Navigate's executive director. "This is not even half of what we asked for."

Navarro, who recently applied for her DACA renewal, is looking ahead. She returned to volunteer as a tutor at her Minneapolis middle school and bonded with immigrant students facing academic hurdles. She says she plans to pursue an education degree: "Students of color need role models they can look up to."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781