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700,000 Undocumented Students to Benefit From Obama Immigration Policy

New policy halts deportations, but many details affecting high school students could fall to states.

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Undocumented students breathed a collective sigh of relief last week when the Obama administration announced that it would stop deporting certain undocumented youth, often referred to as DREAMers.

The policy shift means young immigrants can qualify for deferred action—a temporary legal status—and work authorization if they meet the following criteria:

• They are not older than 30 and were younger than 16 when they arrived in the United States.

• They lived in the United States at the time of the announcement, and had been here at least five years.

• They are enrolled in school, have graduated from high school, or have served in the military.

• They have a relatively clean criminal history—meaning no felony or serious misdemeanor convictions.

• They pose no national security threat.

An estimated 700,000 K-12 students, including 150,000 currently enrolled in high school, could benefit from the change, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

[Read what the Debate Club thinks of the president's immigration policy.]

Simply put, deferred action means no threat of deportation for two years. When that time is up, students will need to reapply. Students must present documentation—school records, medical records, financial records—to prove they are eligible.

"For those that are here undocumented and meet the criteria, [the Obama administration has] lifted from them the fear of deportation, and that is about as huge as it gets," says Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Qualifying for deferred action also means students age 15 and older can legally work in the U.S. if they apply for a work permit, pay the $380 fee, and are approved, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website.

Undocumented students under the deferred action will not qualify for federal benefits such as school vouchers and financial aid, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

And neither deferred status nor work authorization guarantees that students can get a driver's license, enroll in colleges, or qualify for in-state tuition if they are able to go to college, Williams says.

[Find out how some states are enacting their own DREAM Acts.]

"They would be here under the color of the law," she says, "But it's a little up in the air whether they would be considered to have a status, and it may be state laws are going to govern that a bit."

Details of what the June 15 announcement means for undocumented students and their college and work prospects should become clearer as the date to apply for deferred status approaches. The Department of Homeland Security website estimates another 60 days before UCSIS will start taking applications for deferred status.

That uncertainty hasn't dampened the excitement of DREAMers like Arlette Pichardo, whose parents brought her to the United States when she was 4 years old.

"Holy macaroni! Like, God, I'm not going to be undocumented. I'm not going to have to watch my back," Pichardo told KPCC Radio in Los Angeles following the June 15 announcement. "That's so surreal. I don't know what that's like, not living in fear."

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