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Young immigrants pack Navy Pier to seek protected status

Published: Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 9:15 a.m. CDT
(Photo by Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/MCT)
Dagmara Lopez, center, with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, talks with undocumented youth that were turned away while waiting to apply for deferred action that would grant them temporary relief for the opportunity to live in the U.S. at Navy Pier in Chicago, Illinois, Wednesday August 15, 2012.

CHICAGO (MCT) — The hosts of Dream Relief Day at Navy Pier on Wednesday expected a big turnout of people looking to take advantage of a new federal reprieve for students and young adults in the country illegally.

But they were overwhelmed by the size of the crowd that showed up.

Thousands of people filled the pier’s boardwalk and stretched out in a line along Illinois Street that turned onto the lakefront bike path and continued all the way to Wacker Drive. Some were dressed in ties and business attire for the big day. They came from far-flung suburbs, with some traveling from Wisconsin.

All came for the chance to get advice from attorneys and immigration experts and to fill out applications for a new Obama administration initiative that offers a chance for two years of protected status in the U.S.

“I’ve been here since 7 a.m.,” said Daniel Villa, 18, beaming while standing beneath a Lake Shore Drive overpass busy with rush-hour traffic. “I’ll wait six hours if I have to. I’m not going anywhere; I’ve waited too long for this.” Villa said he hopes to use federal work authorization to become a hospital nurse.

The Navy Pier event, coordinated by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, kicked off the first day of what will be an open-ended application process that will affect an estimated 1.2 million people nationwide who were born after June 15, 1981, and brought into the U.S. before they were 16.

It was among the largest of several Dream Relief Day events around the country and turned into a combination of a legal seminar and political rally for those who support immigration reform.

“This is what history looks like!” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told the cheering crowd. He was one of several politicians who attended.

As the crowd kept growing — the immigrant advocacy group put the final estimate at 13,000 — organizers began turning people away, explaining they were only able to help about 7,500 people and process no more than 1,500 applications.

Those at the end of the line were told that more workshops are planned. But there was nonetheless anger and frustration among those who had to wait without getting help, evidence of the sense of urgency many feel to emerge from lives spent hiding their illegal immigration status.

“It was chaotic and not organized,” said Christian Villalovos, 20, a Northern Illinois University sophomore, after she and a group of friends from Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood waited in line for an hour without accomplishing anything.

President Barack Obama has described the program, officially known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, as a “stop-gap measure” in the absence of successful DREAM Act legislation that would provide conditional legal status to students and U.S. military personnel.

Critics of the measure have complained in email blasts and websites that the initiative usurps congressional authority. But for the several thousand people who made it inside the Navy Pier grand ballroom, the program’s first day was cause for celebration.

At one point, everyone in the ballroom took a break from talking with volunteer attorneys and going over paperwork to recite the Pledge of Allegiance before a U.S. flag. Liliana Garcia’s voice rose above those around her during the pledge and at times cracked with emotion.

After arriving from Mexico City in 2000, Garcia, 24, said she’s struggled to find work near where she and her two daughters — ages 4 and 7 — live in Waukegan.

Applying for protected status means she may be able to land something better than the minimum-wage cashier’s job at a local supermarket that has supported the family, she said.

“It’s going to mean a lot for us,” she said. “I can give them a better future.”

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