Immigrant among first in nation to receive temporary reprieve from deportation

The 24-year-old North Georgia resident no longer has to live with the nerve-racking fear of being sent back to a country she hardly knows. Her parents brought her here from Mexico when she was 9. With the government’s approval she can now work legally here and pay income taxes.

But she isn’t letting her guard down. Her work permit and the government’s promise that she won’t be deported are good for just two years. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said he will scrap the program if he is elected Tuesday. And the state of Mississippi and 10 federal immigration authorities are suing to stop the program immediately, saying President Barack Obama abused his power by going around Congress.

Jimenez told her friends the good news after the government approved her request for “deferred action” last month. At the same time, the Rabun County High School graduate is keeping her excitement in check.

“I don’t want to make a big deal out of things because it is not a permanent thing,” she said. “I am very grateful for it. But I also have to keep my feet on the ground because after this I don’t know what could happen.”

Immigration watchdogs in Georgia have blasted the Obama administration’s program as an illegal form of amnesty that is putting more pressure on taxpayer-funded resources in this state, including its public schools and hospitals. Supporters say it is a humane way to treat young, educated immigrants who, in many cases, did not choose to come here but now have deep roots in the United States.

The program applies to illegal immigrants who came here as young children, attended school or served in the U.S. military and did not commit violent crimes. It mirrors parts of the Dream Act, legislation that would give special consideration to illegal immigrants who came here as children, graduated from high school and attended college or served in the military. The bill — which Obama backed — failed in Congress in 2010.

Nearly 1 million immigrants across the U.S. are now eligible for deferred action, according to an estimate by the Immigration Policy Center, an arm of the American Immigration Council, an immigrant rights and policy group in Washington. Of those, 24,360 live in Georgia, the eighth-largest total among states.

The government started accepting applications Aug. 15. So far, nearly 180,000 immigrants have applied and 4,591 have been approved, according to federal statistics as of Oct. 10.

The government has not yet released a state-by-state breakdown of those numbers. But local immigration attorneys say they know of dozens of immigrants living in Georgia who have been approved. Hundreds of applications from other Georgia residents are pending, they said.

Obama announced the new policy in June, calling it a stopgap measure that will help his administration focus on deporting violent criminals while giving “a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, patriotic young people.”

Meanwhile, Romney has criticized the program, saying the Obama administration is “playing immigration politics with these children.” The former Massachusetts governor said that if elected, he will honor deportation deferrals already granted by the government. But his campaign aides have said Romney would stop the program and replace it with something more long-term for young illegal immigrants.

Kris Kobach, an informal adviser to the Romney campaign on immigration, is now suing in a federal court in Texas to scrap the program. Among the plaintiffs are the state of Mississippi and 10 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and agents. Their suit says the program violates federal immigration laws and unconstitutionally goes around Congress.

The complaint also says the program will allow illegal immigrants to remain in Mississippi, forcing the state to bear the costs of educating them in its public schools and caring for them in its hospitals.

“There is a line that they crossed,” Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state, said of the Obama administration. “If this is permissible, then what’s next?”

Jimenez said she is sensitive to what Kobach and other critics are saying about illegal immigration and Obama’s policy. But she pointed out that she did not make the choice to come here. Her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was a child. They overstayed their visas and settled in North Georgia. Her parents were later able to obtain legal status. She has not been able to do the same, but she now considers the United States her home.

Jimenez said she has become so “Americanized” that she wouldn’t fit back in her native country. She is fluent in Spanish, but she prefers to speak English — she even thinks and dreams in English. She has also grown to enjoy American barbecue, the “Twilight” vampire romance series and country music.

“Life in Mexico is so different from here,” she said. “I would stand out there now. … I would just feel like an outcast in my own country, which is crazy.”

She said the two-year work permit the government has granted her will also help her contribute more to this country. She is planning to get a Georgia driver’s license, get a job and study nursing in college.

She also plans to eventually move out of her parents’ home in this small town. They live in a bucolic part of North Georgia surrounded by towering mountains and lush forests. It’s beautiful but isolating, particularly for a grown woman who is living with her parents and doesn’t have a driver’s license. So Jimenez is planning to go on a big road trip with her cousin after she gets her license. She wants to experience the freedom she has gained, however temporary it may be. Florida is in her sights. Miami, specifically. And the beach.

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