PHOENIX Undocumented Mexican youths who came to the United States as children reacted with joy to an Obama administration rule change on Friday that could spare them deportation, although opponents slammed it as amnesty and ridiculous.
"It hasn't really sunk in entirely, but I feel a sense of joy and happiness because I know this is really going to change my life," said Justino Mora, 22, an undocumented computer science student at UCLA in Los Angeles.
Mora is among an estimated 800,000 illegal immigrants up to 30 years old who came to the United States as children and will benefit by the surprise order announced by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
"I will have the opportunity to ... create my own business so that I can help ... my family financially and create the jobs that the U.S. needs," Mora told Reuters.
The rule change applies to undocumented youngsters like Mora who do not pose a risk to national security and who will now be eligible to stay in the country and apply for work permits. Mora came to the United States at age 11 from central Mexico with his mother.
Those eligible under Obama's plan must have come to the United States under the age of 16 and lived in the country for at least five years. They must be in school or have graduated from high school or be honorably discharged from the U.S. military. They also must not have been convicted of any felony or significant misdemeanor offenses.
For 18-year-old high school honors graduate Yolanda Medina, in Phoenix, Arizona, the rule change means a shot at studying at the city's Grand Canyon University in the fall and the chance to escape a life toiling in menial jobs open to illegal immigrants.
"Most of us ... are forced to take jobs like cleaning houses, cleaning someone's car or babysitting, when you have so much more to offer," said Medina, who came to the United States with her mother from Durango, Mexico, at age 3.
"This is a like a dream came true for me."
In Mission, Texas, undocumented computer science student Yajaira Marmolejo, 22, said the change would give her a shot at finding a job to help her Mexican migrant parents, who run a business and sell clothes in a local flea market.
"I've just been waiting for an opportunity to work," said Marmolejo, who came to the United States at age 10. "I will be able to help my family economically. Also, I will be able to have money and have a job and do what I actually like doing."
There are about 11 million illegal immigrants living, working and studying in the shadows in the United States, some 1 million to 2 million of whom came to the country as children.
What to do with the undocumented population divides Americans in this election year marked by a tough economy, and the rule change made some indignant.
"President Barack Obama's decision to grant work permits to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children is nothing short of backdoor amnesty by executive fiat and a blatant political ploy," David Dewhurst, the lieutenant governor of Texas and a Republican U.S. Senate candidate, said in a statement.
"Here in Texas, we face the impacts of illegal immigration on our economy every day, as well as the violence from drug cartels and transnational gangs infiltrating our neighborhoods."
For Mark Renner, 50 and unemployed in Phoenix, the move was simply "ridiculous."
"The whole problem is they're coming here illegally, they know they're here illegally and they're getting better treatment than citizens of the U.S. as far as I'm concerned," Renner said.
"Jobs, the healthcare, it's taking away from what we barely have left ... they should go back and do it the right way like everyone else has to," he said.
(Additional reporting by Jared Taylor in McAllen, Jim Forsyth in San Antonio and Corrie MacLaggan in Austin; Editing by Bill Trott)