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Earlier this month, Elsie Allen High School graduate Jesus Atilano filed for a federal program that would stop the clock on his status as an undocumented immigrant.

For Atilano, who was brought into the United States illegally from Mexico by his parents when he was 1, it's a chance for a new life -- a more legitimate one that comes with a federal work permit, a Social Security number and, if he wants, a California driver's license.

But there's a downside that, under current immigration rules, could haunt him in the future should he decide to become "legal."

Atilano filed for the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA for short, more than six months after his 18th birthday. As a result, he now faces a possible three-year ban from re-entering the country should he ever leave and attempt to get his green card at the U.S. Consulate office in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

If he does not get deferred action before his birthday in late May, he will have accrued one year of unlawful presence in the U.S. and face a 10-year ban from re-entry.

"I wish I could move on with my life, but I guess people have obstacles," Atilano said Wednesday after meeting an immigration consultant in Santa Rosa.

Atilano would have no unlawful presence accrued had he filed for deferred action before he turned 18 last May. The program wasn't announced by the Obama administration until a month later, and it wasn't launched until August.

To avoid predicaments like the one facing Atilano, young undocumented immigrants who are eligible for deferred action are being strongly advised to apply before they turn 18.

"Kids who apply between 15 and 18 get an added benefit -- they never accrue unlawful presence," said Kathy Differding, Atilano's immigration consultant and the manager of immigration and citizenship services for the nonprofit California Human Development Corp.

Differding said she and other nonprofit organizations that provide immigration assistance are encouraging these young immigrants to apply for DACA as soon as they qualify. By doing so, they could avoid future bureaucratic hurdles and headaches, she said.

Alberto Sosa of Petaluma submitted a DACA application for his daughter Stephanie as soon as she became eligible when she turned 15 in February. Sosa said he has been closely following recent changes to immigration rules, as well as recent discussions in Washington, D.C., over a comprehensive immigration bill.

Sosa said his daughter, who he brought to the United States illegally as a toddler in 2002, dreams of becoming a doctor specializing in neurology. He said he will do what it takes to make sure Stephanie and his younger son can continue their studies.

"We started the process days before she turned 15, so that when she did we could immediately submit the paperwork," he said.

Undocumented immigrants are eligible for DACA if they were born on or after June 16, 1981, came to the United States before they turned 16, and have lived continuously in the United States since June 15, 2007.

While DACA does not grant legal immigration status, it allows these young undocumented immigrants to legally live and work in the United States for two years. It has to be renewed after that.

Unless immigrants are eligible to apply for a green card in the United States, they must leave the country and apply at a U.S. consulate office in their native country. The bans on re-entry are triggered as soon as you leave American soil.

Waivers, though they can now be requested without leaving the country, do not come easy. An unlawful-presence waiver is granted in cases where a U.S. citizen who is a spouse or close relative can prove separation from the undocumented relative would cause extreme hardship on the family. The filing fee for the waiver currently is $670, while legal fees for help filing the application are at least $2,000, said Santa Rosa immigration attorney Stephen Scribner.

Scribner said he knows of one nationally recognized attorney in Texas who charges between $8,000 to $10,000 for waiver cases "and she's not a crook." Filing for DACA before you turn 18 "is absolutely a smart thing to do," Scribner said.

"This is a secondary reason why deferred action could be very valuable," he said.

Differding said the granting of waivers is discretionary. "It's not a guarantee that they're going to give it to you, and they can be denied and cannot be appealed," she said.

Santa Rosa siblings Giovanni and Lizbeth, who asked that only their first names be used because of their current undocumented status, were brought to the United States on tourist visas by their mother in 1998. When their visas expired, they became undocumented immigrants.

Sixteen years later, the Santa Rosa siblings have applied for deferred action. But Giovanni, who turns 20 in October, has been accruing unlawful presence since his 18th birthday. Lizbeth, who turns 18 in October, has not.

"It's not reasonable. I think we're exactly the same," Lizbeth said.

Lizbeth, a senior at Roseland University Prep who has applied to California State University campuses in Sacramento, San Francisco and Rohnert Park, said she hopes to study interior design.

Her brother, she said, is attending Santa Rosa Junior College and is eager to receive deferred action so he can leave his "under the table" job for a legitimate one and become more "independent."

Like other DACA applicants who are over 18, her brother will continue to accrue unlawful presence while his DACA request is being processed. But undocumented immigrants who submit their DACA applications before their 18th birthday do not accrue unlawful presence, even if they turn 18 while their applications are being processed.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.