Nineteen-year-old Cristian Lopez didn't always think college was within his reach.
Once a good student with high ambitions, Lopez began to lose sight of his goals in junior high when he realized his status as an undocumented immigrant would make it nearly impossible for him to attend college and pursue his career goals.
But all that changed earlier this summer when President Obama announced the federal government will grant temporary deportation relief and provide work permits to young immigrants who meet requirements proposed under the stalled Dream Act. Officials estimate 800,000 people—30,000 in Washington state alone—will apply for the program when the policy is implemented later this month.
For Lopez, a 2012 graduate of Redmond High School who has lived here since he was 5, the news suddenly put his longtime dream of becoming a journalist within reach.
"This act doesn't just represent the dream of immigrants—it's the American dream," he said.
Lopez was one of about 50 people who gathered at the last Thursday to hear a presentation about the new program from OneAmerica, Washington state's largest immigrant advocacy group. Jessica Scruggs, a OneAmerica program coordinator, said the organization is holding similar meetings around the state to help immigrants obtain accurate information about the program and how to apply.
"This is a process that's going to be a little complicated," Scruggs said. "We want to make sure people are getting really good info."
Among the requirements, applicants must have come to the US before they turned 16, resided in the US for at least five years and be younger than 30. Individuals must also have no felony or "serious misdemeanor" convictions, and must either be enrolled in school or have a high school diploma or GED, or be an honorably discharged veteran.
While addressing the group, Scruggs stressed the importance of meeting with a lawyer to discuss the eligibility requirements. If someone applies for the deferment and should not have done so, he or she "could get into serious trouble," Scruggs said.
Among his peers and neighbors, Lopez said a fear of deportation has caused many people to hesitate to learn about the program or attend public meetings like the one held at the library.
"There are definitely a lot more people, just in this city, that could have benefitted from this (meeting), but there's fear," he said.
The tone inside the library meeting room was one of cautious optimism. Before getting into the requirements of the program, Scruggs took a moment to celebrate the president's announcement, which is being seen as a major victory by many immigrant rights groups.
"There hasn't been any kind of process for people who don't have papers since the 1980s," she said. "Everyone here in this room should be really, really proud of this moment."