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Originally published Friday, June 15, 2012 at 9:22 PM

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Obama immigration decision elates students, advocates

Washington immigration-reform advocates said the Obama administration's change in immigration policy will affect thousands of undocumented immigrants in Washington.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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Bellevue College student Andrea Torres watched President Obama's speech announcing a change in immigration policy two times Friday "just to make sure it was real."

Torres, 21, says she was brought here from Mexico by her parents on a tourist visa which they later overstayed, when she was 7. She hopes the new policy will mean an end to fears she could be deported at any time.

"I don't consider that (Mexico) to be my home," said Torres, who is studying to be a family therapist. "My home is here in the U.S."

In his speech Friday, Obama said the U.S. would no longer deport young people who were brought here as children and who meet certain other criteria. They can also apply for work authorization.

Ricardo Sanchez, director of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, was meeting with a group of educators Friday in Seattle to talk about expanding access to higher education for illegal immigrants when the news swept through the room.

"Wow — it's a long time coming and long overdue, but it's going to make a huge difference to our students," said Sanchez, who estimated that thousands of illegal immigrants living in Washington may benefit from the policy. Estimates nationally are as high as 1 million.

Critics of the plan say it is an attempt by Obama to make an end-run around congressional authority.

"This amounts to a de facto amnesty that has never been approved by Congress," said Ira Mehlman, the Seattle-based spokesman for the national group Federation for American Immigration Reform. "This is clearly beyond the scope of the president's authority."

Mehlman said the move was bad news for legal residents who are trying to find jobs, as well as students just graduating from college and entering the workforce.

"You're going to have to compete against 800,000 to 1 million undocumented immigrants," he said. "They'll be able to compete with any job. With your job."

He said the policy shift also sends a signal to the world that if children are brought to the U.S. and raised here, they'll eventually be allowed to stay legally. Although the policy announced Friday is limited to only those living in the U.S. today, "the same arguments will be used five to 10 years from now" to extend the policy, Mehlman said.

But higher-education advocates said the policy offers hope to students who are working hard to improve their lives and who already consider themselves American in every other way.

Although "the provisions are still relatively modest, it's a good step in the direction of immigration reform," said John Fraire, vice president of student affairs and enrollment for Washington State University.

Fraire, who works with Eastern Washington high schools to encourage more Hispanic students to go to college, said "the real impact will come when there's a real process for citizenship for these students, and when they're eligible to receive state aid and federal aid."

Washington is one of 10 states that allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition if they can prove they went to high school here. In 2010-11, 557 undocumented students submitted affidavits to receive in-state tuition, 85 percent of them to attend community and technical colleges.

Undocumented students are not eligible for federal or state grants or loans, something that keeps many from going to college. Rodolfo Arévalo, president of Eastern Washington University and the son of Washington migrant workers, said it's "an excellent move on the part of the president to provide an avenue for young people who were brought to this country and have led law-abiding lives in the United States."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @katherinelong.

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