PHOENIX -- Undocumented immigrants are taking their time filling out the paperwork for President Barack Obama's deferred-action program that allows them to legally stay in the country because they have only one chance to get the application right.
The six-page application requires undocumented immigrants who want to stay and work in the U.S. for two years without fear of deportation to submit multiple documents proving they meet the program's long list of requirements, among them that they are younger than 31 and came to this country before turning 16.
They have no chance to reapply.
"It's a one-shot thing, and you want to make sure you have everything needed," said Phoenix resident Yadira Garcia, 23, an undocumented immigrant from Nogales, Sonora, and a member of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition.
Concern over the process was evident as hundreds of young undocumented immigrants interested in applying for the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program turned up for each of the five sessions of No Dream Deferred, an informational forum held Saturday here.
Johnny Sinodis, an immigration lawyer with the Arizona chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told attendees that his organization was willing to help them complete the application at no cost.
"We have the resources to provide them with free legal services. We don't want them to go to 'notarias,' " he said. "This is a very vulnerable group of people, and we don't want them subjected to fraudulent giants."
Notarias are questionable businesses that sometimes take advantage of undocumented immigrants by providing bad legal advice and charging high prices for it.
Among the potential applicants in attendance was Gabriela Meza, 18, whose immigration status has caused her difficulties in the past.
Meza said she planned to visit family in Mexico for a weekend four years ago, but the Border Patrol didn't allow the then-14-year-old to re-enter the country when they discovered her citizenship status. Meza ended up staying in Mexico for six months until she could get back to Phoenix. Lawyers at the forum told her that the stint out of the United States will probably cause her program application to be denied.
"I want for them (the government) to at least help us be legal," said Meza, a 12th-grader here. "I have to work to help my parents with the rent. We've really been struggling here a lot."
For those working to fill out applications, the steps have been time-consuming.
Gabriela Perez, 24, an undocumented immigrant from Zacatecas, Mexico, who graduated from Arizona State University in 2010, said it took her more than 70 hours to gather all of the documents she needed to meet the program's requirements.
The documents included her birth certificate from Mexico, transcripts from all of the schools she attended beginning with elementary school and copies of all her school IDs.
Carmen Cornejo of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition said confusion over the application process has been compounded by the executive order that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer issued Wednesday, the same day the federal government began accepting applications for the deferred-action program.
Brewer's order instructed state agencies to initiate policies to make sure that undocumented immigrants granted deferred action and work permits through the program don't receive any additional public benefits, including state-issued driver's licenses.
Potential applicants for deferred action are worried that Brewer's order would trump the application.
"Many students were ready on the 15th to just apply, but when she passed that, there was fear," said Alfonso Vazquez, a Phoenix College student interning at the Christian nonprofit Neighborhood Ministries. "They've been asking if the whole thing (the program) is going to be abolished now."
The state Motor Vehicle Division now accepts work permits to get driver's licenses in Arizona.
Many undocumented immigrants hope that practice will continue, but the division is conducting a review. They also hope they will be able to go back to paying the less expensive in-state tuition at colleges and universities if granted deferred action.
But Brewer said undocumented immigrants granted deferred action should still be barred from eligibility for in-state tuition. The ban began under Proposition 300, passed in 2006.
Arizona is one of at least four states that have passed laws barring undocumented immigrants from being offered in-state tuition, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Instead, undocumented immigrants here must pay more expensive out-of-state tuition if they want to attend any of the state's community colleges or universities.
In the past, Maricopa Community Colleges had accepted work permits as one of the documents required to establish legal residency in Arizona to apply for in-state tuition, said Tom Gariepy, a spokesman.
On Friday, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild issued written statements urging community colleges to allow deferred-action recipients to pay in-state tuition.
At Maricopa Community Colleges, in-state tuition is $76 per credit hour, compared with $317 for out-of-state.
"It is (an) economic imperative for our city," Stanton said. "Our economic future is dependent on increasing the college-attainment rate for our young people."
Dulce Vazquez, 21, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was taking classes at Phoenix College but stopped when she could no longer afford out-of-state tuition. Now, she plans to apply for deferred action so that she can legally work and go back to school.
"I have always wanted to pursue my education," she said.
David G., 25, of Mesa, Ariz., who would only provide his last initial for fear of deportation, moved out of state after Proposition 300 passed, transferring from ASU to the University of New Mexico. He recently returned here after his parents lost their jobs and could no longer help pay his tuition.
David asked the lawyers at Saturday's informational event if getting married and starting the process for a green card could hurt his application.
"They told me I could do both at the same time. That was a big relief," said David, who recently had been in a relationship with an American citizen.
The Arizona Republic