The Obama administration recently announced it will review 300,000 deportation cases to identify "low priority" undocumented immigrants -- those who don't pose a threat to public safety.
The change in policy has raised a lot of hopes, but how it rolls out is anybody's guess, as Amy Isackson reports from San Diego.
Amy Isackson: Juan, who asked us not to use his real name, came to San Diego from Mexico illegally 24 years ago.
Juan: I was 16 and a half.
Isackson: He'd quit school in Mexico. His family sent him to the U.S. with one of his brothers.
Juan: So, really I never felt like it was my decision to come up here.
Isackson: Juan tells his story sitting on the couch in his living room. His house is immaculate. So is he. His slacks and dress shirt are perfectly pressed.
Juan says when he got to San Diego, he washed dishes and went to high school. He learned English and became a statewide track star. Universities such as UCLA courted him with scholarships.
Juan: My goal always was to become a coach and a bilingual math teacher and it never happened.
Isackson: While Juan had the ability, he didn't have the legal status to go to college. Twenty-five years later Juan is managing an upscale restaurant and raising a family.
At the beginning of this year, Juan was detained at a major Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 5. He doesn't have a criminal record. But he was thrown into deportation proceedings.
Ginger Jacobs is an immigration attorney in San Diego. She says it appears that Juan's case is just the kind that the federal government is looking to put on hold.
Ginger Jacobs: Folks who, a few years ago, would never be placed into proceedings. No criminal record, who are currently being placed into proceedings.
Isackson: During the last two years, the federal government has deported a record 800,000 people. President Obama has repeatedly said he was after "the worst of the worst:" undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes.
But, an analysis by the Associated Press shows that more than half of the people deported last year either had no criminal record or had committed a misdemeanor or traffic violation. The White House says the new deportation policy's goal is to target more serious criminals. (Read a letter to Senators from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.)
But immigration attorneys say legal message boards are buzzing with lawyers trying to figure out what the new policy really means. Attorneys say their phones are ringing off the hook with confused clients.
Some ask if they should turn themselves in. Some say they want to apply for the new amnesty law.
Jacobs: Questions, for me, that indicate that they've received some misinformation about the policy. There is no new law.
Mark Krikorian: This is an extra-constitutional act. I mean, I don't know how else to put it.
Isackson: Mark Krikorian directs the Center for Immigration Studies. That's a Washington think tank that favors tighter immigration controls.
He says if President Obama wanted to stay these deportations he should have gone through Congress to make a new law. Instead, he did an end-run around Congress because he failed to get it to move in immigration reform.
Krikorian: It is a bridge amnesty -- like a bridge loan -- to legalize them legalize them long enough until the pro-amnesty people can prevail in Congress.
Isackson: Legal analysts say the new deportation policy is not amnesty. Aarti Kohli is the Director of Immigration Policy at the UC Berkeley's Boalt Law School.
Aarti Kohli: We're talking 300,000 people, not the estimated 11 million who are in the country. You don't actually get legalized. You just don't get deported.
Isackson: At any time, the federal government can reopen the deportation cases it stays. Federal officials would not answer questions on tape about the review process.
An official with the Department of Homeland Security says they've convened a team of 20 lawyers to determine how the process will proceed. The official would not say when the first case would be put on hold.
Meanwhile, Juan says he's only heard snippets about the policy. He says he used to spend hours pouring over everything he could about immigration reform, the Dream Act, Obama's campaign promises.
Juan: And, at the end, everything went back to the same. Good old nothing.
So, lately, I been like, you know what? I'd rather sit with my little baby girl and read a book with her -- even if we have to read it over and over again because that's what she likes to do -- than try to look up what's going on, who's saying what. For what?
Isackson: But after this interview, Juan has changed his mind. He plans to call his lawyer this week. Juan prays that immigration laws will change.
He still dreams of going to a U.S. college, teaching bilingual math and coaching track. For The California Report, I'm Amy Isackson.