More than 1.7 million illegal immigrants could become eligible for tentative legal status Wednesday when President Obama’s non-deportation policy goes into effect, and after initial fears that the program would backfire, immigrant advocates are urging young immigrants to sign up.
Activists say the policy is the biggest change on immigration in decades, and it has roiled the political landscape, solidifying Mr. Obama’s support among Hispanics and leaving presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney struggling to say what he would do.
On Tuesday, the Obama administration laid out final details, including relaxed education standards that set a low bar.
Under the rules, illegal immigrants in job training or who have enrolled in a GED course are eligible — a lesser requirement than obtaining a high school diploma or equivalency certificate.
The government begins taking applications Wednesday, and immigrant rights groups and members of Congress from both parties have scheduled legal clinics across the country to help determine whether immigrants qualify and to aid them in filling out the forms.
“Our job is to make sure that everyone who’s eligible for this program knows about it and applies for it if they feel comfortable after weighing the risks and benefits,” said Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “So far, the benefits have kind of outweighed the risks, based on the hundreds and thousands of people coming forward.”
The policy halts deportations for illegal immigrants not above the age of 30 who were brought to the U.S. before age 16, who don’t have a major criminal record, and who can show they have been in the country studying or in job training.
Those eligible for the policy are known as Dreamers, after the Dream Act — legislation that failed to pass Congress but would have granted them a path to citizenship.
The Obama policy does not offer a path to citizenship but rather “deferred action,” a halt to potential deportations. Those who qualify also can obtain a permit to work in the U.S.
In certain states, that could be good enough to obtain a driver’s license or in-state tuition at state schools, advocates said.
Republicans said it will push hundreds of thousands of new legal workers into an already tough job market, where they will compete with Americans.
They also said the administration is not requiring in-person interviews for applicants and is accepting affidavits for some requirements, which they said is an invitation to fraud.
“While potentially millions of illegal immigrants will be permitted to compete with American workers for jobs, there seems to be little if any mechanism in place for vetting fraudulent applications,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith and Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano.
The Homeland Security Department, which will process the applications, wouldn’t guess how many applications it will receive.
But the latest estimate from the Migration Policy Institute says that as many as 1.76 million illegal immigrants could be eligible. Homeland Security estimates about 11 million illegal immigrants reside in the U.S.
Officials have said they won’t use any of the information gained from applications to try to deport those who are rejected, or to go after their families, who might still be illegally in the U.S. and fall outside of the program.
Some advocates, though, are wary.
Casa de Maryland, which is helping applicants in Maryland, is warning those who might have criminal records not to sign up just yet: “If you have ANY history of an arrest, conviction or criminal conduct, you should not submit your application until we can confirm your eligibility,” the group says in its guidance, adding that it will help those not eligible try to figure out ways to avoid deportation.
Much of the program’s success will depend on immigrant rights advocates, who are trying to shepherd applicants away from money-making frauds and toward reputable groups.
“What I have seen, thank goodness, is a lot of very prestigious immigration groups that have been working on this are putting out exact information coming from the Department of Homeland Security,” said Maryland state Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, a Democrat who has become a major advocate.
Key questions remain, including whether those who qualify for the federal program also will be eligible for driver’s licenses or in-state tuition at colleges and universities in states where illegal immigrants are currently denied those benefits.
Ms. Gutierrez said in Maryland, a work permit and the Social Security number that comes with it are enough to prove legal residency, which should make them eligible for licenses.
The reverberations are being felt well outside the immigrant community.
Hispanic voters rallied to Mr. Obama’s side after his June announcement, and continue to give him high favorability ratings.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, has steadfastly refused to say whether he would keep the policy in place if he wins the White House.
After repeated requests, his campaign Tuesday pointed to a speech he gave in June in which he hinted that it “can be reversed by subsequent presidents” — though he stopped short of saying he would do so.
Cesar Vargas, a Dream Act student who said he will submit his own application Wednesday, said he and his fellow Dreamers will continue to pressure both candidates to do more.
“A lot of our friends were literally cut off by one day or even by a few hours,” said Mr. Vargas, who graduated law school but is now battling to be admitted to the bar. He said he will put his legal training to use in volunteering to assist other applicants Wednesday.
The threat of deportations may still keep some Dreamers from coming forward, particularly since they are unsure of what Mr. Romney will do as president.
“I think the young people who sign up for deferred action will be politically bulletproof,” he said. “Any future president or secretary of homeland security will have one hell of a fight on their hands if they try to deport this contingent of Dream-eligible youth en masse.”
• Seth McLaughlin contributed to this article.