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In Mass., order stirs joy, disbelief, outrage

Aly Lopez, 20, from Mexico (second from right) and Keylin Chicas, 19, from El Salvador listened to the speech in Boston.ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Globe Freelance

Megha Sharma read the text message and jumped out of bed, screaming. Gladys Martinez warned her best friend that she had better not be joking.

At the Alewife T station, Francisca Rodriguez stared at her phone and burst into uncontrollable tears.

“I just started shaking. I couldn’t stop crying,’’ said Rodriguez, a 20-year-old college student, here since age 7 from Chile. “It’s tears. Tears of joy.’’

President Obama’s surprise declaration Friday granting temporary residency to illegal immigrants who came here as children uncorked a wave of celebration among young immigrants across Massachusetts, coming just days after another high school graduation season ended without resolution of one of the immigration debate’s most poignant and contentious issues.


The Obama administration granted immigrants brought here before age 16 the right to apply for deferred action, meaning they will not be deported and can apply for work permits.

To be eligible, immigrants must not have any serious criminal convictions and must be in school or have received a high school diploma or its equivalent. They cannot be over age 30, which leaves out thousands of people, including a journalist and Dream Act backer, Jose Antonio Vargas, who is 31.

While critics said it will take jobs and college seats away from Americans, supporters - including Governor Deval Patrick - said it would aid thousands of young people who were raised and educated in the United States and did not choose to break the law.

The Obama administration’s action was a far cry from what students had lobbied for, since the Dream Act, a federal law first proposed in 2001 with many of the same features and criteria, calls for a path to US citizenship. But the Dream Act has largely stalled in Congress, most recently defeated in 2010.

Yesterday, young immigrant activists said the victory was testimony to their risky and unorthodox approach to immigration. Instead of allowing others to speak for them, they spoke for themselves, launching websites, revealing their faces and names, and in Massachusetts, even sleeping in front of the State House, braving downpours to call attention to their cause.


Some called them foolhardy for putting themselves, and perhaps their families, at risk of deportation. But yesterday, the youths said their approach worked. Members of the Student Immigrant Movement, launched in Massachusetts in 2005, embraced in tears and broad smiles in their makeshift offices in Chinatown. They gathered on folding chairs before a big screen to watch Obama’s address, and responded with cheers.

“It’s just joy, just joy, and pride for everything that’s gone on with it,’’ said Conrado Santos, 24, here since he was 13 from Brazil. His biggest thrill until yesterday was appearing on the recent cover of Time magazine with other unauthorized immigrants, including Renata Teodoro, 24, a Brazilian who lives in Boston, and Tatevik Keshishyan, 23, of Watertown, who is from Armenia. “No one thought that something like this was possible, not in an election year like this. It’s huge, man. It’s huge.’’

Among those in Chinatown on Friday were students from India, Armenia, Mexico, and Brazil. Some have been here nine years, 10, or even longer. Some have dropped out of college because it was too expensive without in-state tuition rates. Some got private scholarships to finish their studies but then could not work legally.

As the years passed, some students’ hopes faltered as nothing seemed to change, even as it came to light that high school valedictorians - including this year’s valedictorian at the Boston’s Urban Science Academy - and talented athletes were graduating with little hope for their future.


College presidents from Harvard, Brown, and elsewhere rallied to their cause, but in 2010 Harvard student Eric Balderas of Harvard was arrested and held by immigration officials. He was released only after public outcry.

Some contemplated suicide. And some went through with it. The mother of 19-year-old Gustavo Rezende, here illegally from Brazil, has said her son grew despondent after his high school friends left for college, while he stayed behind to work. He hanged himself in March 2010.

Even the most committed immigrant youths sometimes wondered if they would ever get the chance to be here legally.

On the commuter rail one recent day, Sharma, 24, asked Martinez, 22, when she thought the Dream Act would pass. “In 10 years,’’ Martinez ventured.

By then, Sharma would be 34. She has been here from India since she was 15 and speaks three languages, but is unable to apply for scholarships to study computer science. She has lived in fear of deportation.

“I have been scared my whole life,’’ she said.

But on Friday, she was celebrating with hugs and joyful text messages. She wants to finish college. She dreams of a professional career. Yesterday, that seemed possible for the first time in her life.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.