Hundreds of thousands of people who entered the United States as children but without documentation can apply -- beginning Wednesday -- to remain in and work in the country without fear of deportation for at least two years.
"I've found the form!" screamed Maria, a young Chilean at a Latino community center in New York, as she leapt from her seat. She was with a number of other undocumented immigrants meeting here to get legal advice in anticipation of the release of the form, which authorities posted a day before they had said they would.
The form, titled "Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals," was dated August 15, 2012 and bore the expiration date of 2-28-2013.
Maria started filling it out immediately, telling a reporter she was too afraid to divulge her last name or details of her childhood trek to the United States, but would feel differently once the form had been processed and her status ensured.
The director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Tuesday that applicants who have not committed major crimes can apply without fear of deportation.
"This afternoon, USCIS makes available online the forms and instructions for individuals who will request deferred action for childhood arrivals," USCIS Director Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters in a conference call.
The announcement comes two months after Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that people who arrived in the United States as children may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years subject to renewal, and would then be eligible for work authorization.
The program, dubbed Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was created in June under an executive order signed by President Barack Obama.
"Deferred action does not provide lawful status or a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship," Mayorkas said Tuesday.
The $465 application fee will fund the administrative costs of the program, including a biometric check and issuance of a secure work-authorization document, he said.
Each request will be examined for possible fraud, he said.
The forms and instructions are posted at www.uscis.gov/childhoodarrivals.
In a suburb north of Atlanta, David and Daniel Hernandez listened carefully as their lawyer detailed the program.
They arrived in the United States on tourist visas some 15 years ago, when David was 3 years old and Daniel was 1.
Their mother, Salima Hernandez, said they wanted a better future and education for her kids. She said she didn't worry about their legal status until she learned that they would not be able to continue their education without a government ID or Social Security number.
David, now a senior in high school, and Daniel, a freshman, say they were not aware of their status until a couple of years ago, when they began to make plans for college.
"I felt that after high school I didn't have anywhere to go," Davis told CNN. "I felt that if it was not something coming up soon I would end up back in Mexico."
He said he remains concerned about revealing his status to federal authorities by filling out the application, but says it's worth any risk. "Whatever comes in the future is better than three months ago," he said.
"None of these kids are cutting in the line," said their lawyer, Charles Kuck. "They are getting two things out of this program: one, a promise they won't be deported for two years and, two, a work permit. In exchange, the federal government is getting a million or more kids coming forward, give their biographical information and that of their whole family and give their pictures."
He urged anyone applying to do so with the help of a lawyer. "The government has said quite clearly: there will be no appeals, there will be no motions to re-open. You get one bite at this apple."
As many as 1.7 million youths may qualify for the program, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the Pew Research Center.
When he signed the order in June, Obama said the changes will make immigration policy "more fair, more efficient and more just."
The shift on the politically volatile issue of immigration policy has elicited praise from Latino leaders, while Republicans reacted with outrage, saying the move amounts to amnesty -- a negative buzzword among conservatives -- and usurps congressional authority.
"This is not amnesty. This is not immunity. This is not a path to citizenship. It's not a permanent fix," Obama said. "This is a temporary stopgap measure."
Noting children of illegal immigrants "study in our schools, play in our neighborhoods, befriend our kids, pledge allegiance to our flag," Obama said, "it makes no sense to expel talented young people who are, for all intents and purposes, Americans."