PHOENIX — President Barack Obama's decision last year to allow young people living in the U.S. illegally to stay and work marked the biggest shift in immigration policy in decades, hailed as a landmark step toward the American dream for a generation of immigrants.
But months later, many immigrants are having vastly different reactions to the change depending on where they live, and they aren't flocking to the program at the levels the government originally expected.
A handful of Republican-led states are blocking basic benefits for those in the program, denying beneficiaries identification cards, driver's licenses, health care, in-state tuition, student financial aid, college admission or other privileges typically afforded to legal residents.
Others have set out welcome signs for the immigrants, including 12 that grant resident tuition for immigrants who graduated from local high schools.
The number of immigrants who signed up for the program has been smaller than envisioned.
In the first eight months of the program, about 450,000 applications have been accepted. The government originally estimated that 1 million would enroll in the first year. Experts say the numbers have been surprisingly low in states with large immigrant populations like Florida, New Jersey and Arizona, where about 16,000 people have taken advantage of the program.
Enrolling in a college or a university — a cornerstone of the new policy — hasn't been easy either. With many states refusing to grant in-state tuition, immigrants who largely come from working-class families have to shell out upward of $40,000 a year to go to school — with no financial aid.
"It's really hard that now you have all these doors that you feel are going to be open to you and the doors are still closed," said Reyna Avila, a Phoenix college student who received a work permit and Social Security card under the policy, but still cannot drive to work or school without risking criminal charges.
In Michigan, high school senior Javier Contreras and his family considered moving to Illinois until his state came up with a solution allowing him to get a driver's license. But because of his immigration status, he will have to pay the $20,000 for out-of-state tuition if he wants to attend his dream school, the University of Michigan.3 comments on this story
Under the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, more than 1 million immigrants are eligible for work permits good for two years with no limits on how many times they can be renewed. Qualified applicants must be 30 or younger, prove they arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16, have been living in the country at least five years and are in school or graduated or served in the military.
Immigrant advocates embraced the program when it was announced in June as a long-awaited, albeit temporary fix for young immigrants, many of whom were brought here as young children and grew up in America. Congress has failed for years to create a similar law in the form of the DREAM Act, so Obama bypassed the legislative process and implemented the change under the Department of Homeland Security.
Republican critics note the Obama policy was passed only after Congress failed multiple times to pass the DREAM Act and could soon be found unconstitutional in court because it extends legal rights to people who are not legally in the country.
"The Obama amnesty plan doesn't make them legally here," Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said shortly after the program was unveiled.