For Edwin Javier, the signing of New Jersey's "Dream Act" by Gov. Christie on Friday, allowing undocumented immigrants like him to pay cheaper in-state tuition at state colleges, means he now will be able to afford a university education.
Javier, 21, said he had hoped to attend Rutgers-Camden when he graduated from Pennsauken High School in 2012, but could not because he was ineligible for in-state tuition.
As he watched lawmakers in Trenton approve the bill Thursday - after a dramatic deal between the Republican governor and the Legislature's Democratic leadership - Javier, who at age 12 ran across the Mexico-Arizona border, realized he could now be the first in his family to go to college.
"I feel like, finally, I can do what I want to do," Javier said in the Pennsauken home where he and his parents moved after five years living in Camden and before that in New Brunswick, N.J. He plans to begin applying to schools next fall. Money from summer landscaping work will help cover tuition, he said.
The measure allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition if they have attended at least three years of high school in the state and graduated or obtained an equivalency degree. They will not be eligible for state tuition aid grants.
Giancarlo Tello, 23, a political science student at Rutgers-Newark who dropped out in 2012, unable to afford out-of-state tuition, said he and other "Dreamers" now would have nearly the same opportunities as other students when they finish high school.
"A lot of students and youth will be able to wake up across the state and realize they have a chance at a future," said Tello, campaign manager for the New Jersey Tuition Equity for Dreamers Coalition.
Magali Rodriguez, 22, of Bellmawr, said she might have taken a different career path had the law been in effect when she graduated from high school.
Her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 3.
"I would have liked to study to be a paralegal," she said, but lacked the money. She seized the chance to attend the College of St. Elizabeth when the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden offered help with the tuition, and she became a theology student.
Rodriguez, an activist with St. Joseph DREAMers in Camden, said that after she graduates from St. Elizabeth, she may begin paralegal studies and eventually study law.
After signing the bill in private, Christie said he would hold a public ceremony later to mark its passage.
The deal on the Tuition Equality Act followed weeks of sparring.
Democrats agreed to drop the provision that would have made the immigrants eligible for tuition aid, which Christie said would have turned New Jersey into a "magnet" for undocumented immigrants from states that did not offer such a provision.
Christie dropped his demand for a cutoff date under which only immigrants who arrived in the state by 2012 would have been eligible for the tuition break.
Last year, 909,000 noncitizens - including legal permanent residents, undocumented immigrants, and refugees - lived in New Jersey, according to the census' American Community Survey data. Of that group, 88,000 were of college age, between 18 and 24.
Just a small percentage of that group would seek to use the tuition equality benefits, Erika Nava, a policy analyst at New Jersey Policy Perspective, said last month.
Tello, whose family brought him from Peru when he was 6, said his parents did not tell him of his immigration status until he was in high school in Teaneck, Bergen County, and was poised to obtain a driver's license.
After "a couple of years of depression and living in the shadows," Tello enrolled at Rutgers University, paying $2,700 per course, the price charged out-of-state students.
According to the Rutgers website, basic in-state tuition for 2013-14 is $10,718 and out-of-state tuition $24,742.
Tello quit and found a job as a political organizer.
Ana Bonilla, 23, was brought to New Brunswick from Mexico by her mother when she was 9. She said she graduated with honors from Middlesex County College, where she majored in chemistry and compiled a 3.9 GPA, but could not afford to pursue a bachelor's degree.
The law "definitely opens a door for me that was closed." But she was disappointed that financial aid was excluded.
Rowan University president Ali A. Houshmand, an immigrant from Iran - "legally," he stressed - said that he did not approve of illegal immigration, but that the reality is that millions of undocumented people cannot just be sent home or jailed.
"For me, I'd much rather see them educated," he said.