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Students laud Obama’s immigration decision

Tamir Kalifa for The Boston Globe

Yohanny Medina Herrera, who is not a legal resident, plans to apply for a work permit under Obama’s new policy.

Yohanny Medina Herrera won’t be going to Newbury College in the fall.

She had all the right credentials — stellar grades, valedictorian at Urban Science Academy, a moving essay about the American dream — and she garnered a partial scholarship.

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But Herrera, 19, was brought by her parents to the United States illegally. Without authorization to work, the $9,000-per-year price tag for the remainder of tuition might as well have been a billion dollars.

Still, she has kept the save-the-date card for Newbury College’s admitted students event posted on her refrigerator. It’s a reminder of what could have been — and now, what might still be.

“This isn’t a solution — it’s a work permit, not legal status,” said Herrera, sitting on the top floor of the Dorchester three-decker where she lives. “But at least now it’ll be the beginning of something.”

For Herrera and many other youths living in America illegally, President Obama’s announcement Friday that the federal government will give them eligibility for work permits was a game-changer.

But the new policy was especially significant for top-tier students like Herrera — young people who found that being valedictorian added biting irony to the legal limbo that prevented them from pursuing college or employment.

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Critics of the policy have said that Obama’s declaration sidestepped Congress and will ultimately make it more difficult to create a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants.

But Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, said Saturday that Obama’s declaration will be pivotal for “extraordinary young people” around the country.

“This announcement is life-changing for the students at Harvard and elsewhere who came to the United States as young children and have studied and worked in the years since with the goal of contributing to their communities and to our national life,” she said.

Herrera’s story is nearly identical to so many others: Her parents left the Dominican Republic to seek work in the United States. When she was 9 years old, they sent a plane ticket for her to join them.

At first, school was hard. Herrera struggled with English. She was bumped down a grade, then repeated the year. She didn’t know enough of the language to phrase questions to teachers.

“I was kind of depressed,” Herrera said. “I seriously felt like I was never going to learn English.”

But she improved. She encouraged friends from the English as a second language class to try chatting over the phone in English. She studied the words that were the hardest to spell: “beautiful,” “Wednesday.”

And once the language came, the rest of school was a breeze.

Even when medical issues complicated her high school career — problems with her digestive tract prompted a series of hospitalizations and surgeries, causing her to miss weeks of school — she asked friends to deliver assignments to the hospital.

At the same time, she started dating a friend from church. Just before her senior year, they got married.

When Herrera got the letter a few months ago with official notification that she was valedictorian, her mother cried.

“This is the reason I wanted you to be in this country,” her mother told her.

Her father gave her a hug and a bouquet of red roses.

But when it came to college, there was less to cheer about. She applied to six schools — “I still had some kind of hope,” she recalled — but knew that without a Social Security number, her applications weren’t worth much.

She watched friends garner acceptance, some with full financial aid, to Northeastern University, Boston College, the University of Massachusetts Boston — all schools she dreamed of attending.

“I just kept thinking, I worked so hard, maybe I can go to college,” Herrera said. “But I couldn’t go. I couldn’t go anywhere.”

Just as she was rejected from colleges, almost all her job applications were turned down. She found one part-time job where she is paid in cash.

Even with Obama’s announcement, Herrera is still not a legal resident and cannot qualify for financial aid, in-state tuition, or many scholarships. But she believes the federal government’s new policy on youths living illegally in the United States is a step forward. At least now she could get a full-time job — perhaps at a hospital, which will help in her goal to become an emergency room nurse.

And as soon as she can apply for a work permit — an application process slated to open two months from now — she can start saving for college.

“I don’t want to wait for those 60 days,” Herrera said. “I want to apply right now.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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