For Josue Saldivar, holding his work permit for the first time felt like opening a long-awaited gift.

“I looked around me. There I was in the parking lot of the University of Arizona participating in a leadership conference,” he said. “In that moment, I knew all my hard work was paying off.”

Saldivar, 22, applied for the federal deferred action program in December and got his approval Feb. 15.

The initiative was announced by the Obama administration June 15, 2012, and implemented exactly one year ago. It grants eligible illegal immigrant youths work authorization and temporary relief from deportation for a renewable two-year period.

Out of the 1.1 million people who meet all the criteria, about half have applied, the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute estimates. Most of them are from Mexico.

In Arizona, about 33,000 people are eligible for the program and about 19,000 applications have been accepted for processing.

The number of people who apply depends on: the availability and cost of legal assistance to apply; how important is it to have a work permit and driver’s license; awareness of the program and affording the $465 fee, said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, during a live chat Wednesday.

Saldivar had everything he needed to submit his application the moment the government started to accept them, but he lacked the money. He had to wait several months until an acquaintance offered to cover it. He has a 17-year-old sister eligible for the program, but the family can’t pay for it.

For his family, he said, it’s deciding between paying rent or the application fee.

Saldivar came to Tucson from Agua Prieta when he was 8 years old and didn’t realize he was in the country illegally until he was a senior at Desert View High School and started to apply for scholarships to go to college.

“Before that I thought I could accomplish what anyone else could,” he said.

For him DACA, as the program is called, is one less roadblock.

“At least now I can work legally,” he said from a trailer home he shared with his family until they moved last year to New Mexico — in search of a state with less restrictive immigration laws.

Saldivar earned an associate’s degree in business administration from Pima Community College in May and is looking for a job to help support his family before enrolling at a university to continue his education.

Eventually he wants to work on human and immigrant rights issues for a nonprofit.

But there are still many challenges ahead.

“We are still fighting for a driver’s license. We’re still fighting for in-state tuition,” he said.

PCC and Maricopa County’s 10-college system now offer in-state tuition rates to those who applied for deferred action, but the state’s three public universities — including the University of Arizona — don’t.

Arizona is one of two states that don’t issue driver’s licenses to DACA beneficiaries because the program doesn’t grant them legal status. There’s a lawsuit pending against Gov. Jan Brewer’s executive order.

Saldivar said he hasn’t been able to find a job in part because he relies on public transportation.

“I’ve had to decline interviews because of the time it would take me to just get there,” he said. Still, he stays in Arizona because Tucson is his home.

Over the years, he said he’s thought of the day he would be able to work and relieve some of the pressure from his father.

“But I also thought of the day I became a legal permanent resident. I thought of the day I became a citizen,” he said. “Deferred action is not a green card. It’s not a path to citizenship.”

And for that, he will keep fighting.