When Sarita Santillan moved from Peru to Maryland with her family in 2003, she was just 11 years old — and had little clue how hard it would be to stay here.

This week, Santillan, 20, an illegal immigrant who lives in Greektown, will be among more than a million undocumented residents who are expected to apply for a reprieve from deportation. The new program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is being offered by the Obama administration starting Wednesday.

"I should be able to work and help pay my way through college now. This is a wonderful opportunity for me and for others like me," said Santillan, a 2009 graduate of Digital Harbor High.

The program, announced June 15, allows young immigrants who were brought to America as children to stay and work in the country for two years without fear of being deported.

Immigration authorities are bracing for a deluge of applications as more than 1.2 million young illegal immigrants become eligible to apply for the program, President Obama's most ambitious immigration initiative to date.

But even before the first request is filed, critics and advocates are warning of potential budget shortfalls and a logjam of paperwork that could mar the program, delay processing and facilitate fraud.

Advocacy groups have planned public celebrations, legal aid seminars and other events in major cities to herald a plan that has sparked rejoicing and relief in immigrant communities — and anger among Republicans who view it as a White House ploy for Latino support in an election year and a backdoor amnesty that usurps congressional authority.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which will review the applications, is expecting about 1.2 million applications on top of the 6 million applications it normally adjudicates for citizenship, residency and work visas every year, officials said. That's up from 800,000 expected when Obama announced the plan in June.

"The undocumented youth I've met are so excited about finally being able to be counted, there will be a push to apply on the first day," said David Leopold, an immigration attorney in Cleveland, Ohio. "But I think people should take a breath and make sure they do it right, not right now."

Under the program, undocumented immigrants younger than 31 who came to the United States before the age of 16 are eligible if they are enrolled in school, graduated from high school or served in the U.S. armed forces, and have no criminal record, among other criteria.

Getting a work permit allows an immigrant to obtain a valid Social Security number, apply for a driver's license, open a bank account and gain other important benefits.

Federal officials say they have little idea how many immigrants will apply within any given state or city, but on the day before the program began, Maryland wasn't lacking for eager potential applicants.

Santillan, the Peru native, is a sophomore general studies major at Baltimore City Community College. She'll now be eligible for a greater variety of scholarships, she said, which might give her a chance to transfer to Towson University or Morgan State University. And in any case, the prospect of working will allow her to help support herself.

Joel Sati, 19, of Silver Spring, a native of Kenya, has been working toward his dream of becoming a neuroscientist, taking courses at the Rockville campus of Montgomery College in hopes of transferring to the University of Maryland, College Park for further study.

Sati, who moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 9, said that as an illegal immigrant, he has been unable to get a driver's license, which has meant daily commutes to the campus by bus or Metro, which can take two hours per day.

And while his parents have done everything they can to support his ambitions, he has been unable to return the favor by earning money of his own.

"This program will give me a bit of financial freedom and freedom in terms of mobility," he said. "It's an excellent opportunity."

Veronica Sarazia, 17, of Beltsville, who moved from El Salvador to this country with her family when she was 10, said she has had trouble figuring out how she might be able to fulfill her twin ambitions — studying psychology and eventually joining the U.S. Air Force — until the initiative became an option.

In addition, her mother has fallen ill and become unable to work, a situation that has left her feeling helpless.

"Now, I should be able to have a stable job and have decent pay that I could live on [to help] my family," she said. "And this [program] might be just one step toward many other wonderful things we can make happen."

Advocacy groups estimate more than 1.7 million teens and young adults may be eligible, although it's unknown how many will apply or how quickly. Those granted approval will be given a two-year deferral from deportation and legal authorization to work.

The program offers far fewer benefits than the sweeping DREAM Act, which failed to win approval in Congress in 2010. That legislation, which Obama supported, would have granted legal status to undocumented youths.

"Deferred action does not provide lawful status or a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship," Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a conference call with reporters. He said each application "will be examined for potential fraud and reviewed on a case-by-case basis."

Mayorkas said application forms would be posted at http://www.USCIS.gov/childhoodarrivals, and could be submitted starting Wednesday. He said each application would likely take several months to process, and its progress can be followed online.

The program was designed and rolled out in 60 days — breakneck speed for a federal agency.

"It is going to be a huge challenge," said Doris Meissner, who was head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000. "The start-off will be very important. How it is handled and the time it takes to process them will set the tone."

Obama administration officials say the program will aid law enforcement by allowing authorities to focus on deporting convicted criminals, instead of students and others with strong family ties in the United States. Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement expelled nearly 400,000 people, a record tally. More than half had criminal records, or were repeat violators of immigration law.

Some activists worried that a future president could overturn Obama's order authorizing the reprieves, and that immigrants who come out of the shadows and turn over their paperwork to authorities have no guarantees that they will not be deported if their applications are rejected.

When he unveiled the plan two months ago, Obama called it "a temporary stopgap measure" rather than a solution to the nation's immigration morass.

No new workers have been hired to review the school records, sworn affidavits and other documentation each applicant is required to file. And no funds have been appropriated to pay added processing costs. Officials said the initial budget will be covered by the $465-per-application fee, and as more fees are collected, new staff will be hired.

An application for an undocumented farmworker to apply for legal amnesty under a program signed by President Reagan in 1986 cost the immigration agency $1,130 to process, two members of Congress wrote in an Aug. 7 letter to Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security.

In the past, not charging enough to review applications has "resulted in an enormous backlog of legal immigration benefits applications and very long processing wait times for legal immigrants and aspiring U.S. citizens," wrote Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, and Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican.

On Tuesday, Smith denounced the deferral program as a "magnet for fraud and abuse" designed to shore up Latino support for Obama. "There seems to be little if any mechanism in place for vetting fraudulent applications and documentation submitted by illegal immigrants," Smith said in a statement.

Officials said application fees will be waived in extreme circumstances, such as children living in foster care or in acute poverty.

"There has been a tremendous response," said Matt Adams, legal director for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, an advocacy organization in Seattle, Wash.

Among those waiting to apply is Manuel Bartsch, 25, who came to the U.S. from Germany with relatives when he was 11. He says he only learned when he took college placement exams in 2005 that he didn't have legal residency. He has faced the threat of deportation ever since.

Now Bartsch is collecting transcripts and class schedules from Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio, to submit with his application. If he is granted a work permit, he wants an internship in a politician's office, a job he can't apply for now.

"With this immigration issue, politics has caught my interest," Bartsch said in a telephone interview.

And Sarazia, the El Salvador native, said there was no longer any good reason to defer her dreams. She has had a couple of months to think about things and get her documents in order and was looking forward to applying Wednesday.

"I have all the materials ready. I can't think of any good reason to wait," she said.

Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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