Disbelief and elation swept through the state’s immigrant community today as people checked text messages and voice mail and e-mail and saw the news — that for the first time in decades law-abiding young people who were brought here as children illegally would no longer face deportation and would be eligible to apply for work permits.
“It doesn’t feel real,” said Renata Teodoro, 24, who moved from Brazil when she was 6 years old. “It’s not everything that we need, but it’s a big step.”
Immigrant students had in recent years become highly organized and increasingly public in their quest to gain legal residency, pointing out that it wasn’t their choice to come to America but they had spent most of their lives here, spoke impeccable English, lived exemplary lives, and identified more with the United States than their homelands.
Teodoro was among student organizers who slept in front of the State House, enduring pouring rain, to push for immigrant rights. She also lobbied lawmakers, including US Senator Scott Brown.
She said she was was stunned and still trying to absorb the fact that her life could change dramatically.
Frank Soults, spokesman for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said the new policy would change the lives of many young immigrants.
“It’s a wonderful development and a tremendous relief,” Soults said. “This will provide [young people] the opportunity to continue with their lives and come out of the shadows.”
But the measure is only a temporary fix, Soults said, because it is a policy dictated by the Obama administration. If the White House were to change hands, he said, young immigrants’ legal status would be in jeopardy. Pro-immigration advocates, he said, must still push for the passage of the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship for young people who immigrated illegally.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which prefers stricter controls on immigration, said this was a “risky political move” by Obama, whose rival in the presidential race is sure to attack him for it.
Obama has been a long-time supporter of the DREAM Act, which has stalled in Congress since the 1990s.
“This is a pretty blatant attempt to enact the policy by executive fiat,” she said. “This is clearly an end run around Congress and at odds with what most people want to see happen.” She said the policy change will probably help to legalize tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of young people.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano outlined the new policy in a memorandum released today.
“Our nation’s immigration laws must be enforced in a strong and sensible manner,” Napolitano wrote. “They are not designed to be blindly enforced without consideration given to the individual circumstances of each case. Nor are they designed to remove productive young people to countries where they may not have lived or even speak the language.”
In the memorandum — addressed to top officials from US Customs and Border Protection, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement — Napolitano outlined the criteria for people who qualify for the exemptions from deportation proceedings.
Immigrants currently under the age of 30 must have entered the United States before they were 16 years old, and have lived in the United States for five years before today’s date. They must be enrolled in school, have graduated from school, obtained a GED, or have been discharged from the Coast Guard or the armed forces.
They will not qualify if they have been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor offense, or multiple misdemeanor offenses, or if they pose a threat to national security, Napolitano said. People who demonstrate with documentation that they meet the criteria will be able to defer action on their deportation for two years, renewable every two years, and will be allowed to apply for work permits.
Napolitano pointed out in the memorandum that the new policy on deportation does not provide a path to citizenship.
“This memorandum confers no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship. Only the Congress, acting through its legislative authority, can confer these rights,” Napolitano said. “It remains for the executive branch, however, to set forth policy for the exercise of discretion within the framework of the existing law. I have done so here.”
The plight of young people who were brought here illegally but have grown up American has been highlighted by stories of undocumented high school valedictorians.
Yohanny Medina Herrera, valedictorian of Boston’s Urban Science Academy, who came to the US at age 9 from the Dominican Republic, said she was “extremely excited” about the announcement, calling it “a light of hope.”
“We still have a long way to go with immigration reform, but I know we will have a reform in the future that will help us all reach our goals and I could go to college,” she said.
Herrera said that because she is undocumented she didn’t qualify for financial aid and that had stopped her from going to college.
Globe correspondent Colin A. Young