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Thousands of young undocumented immigrants lined up Wednesday at Chicago’s Navy Pier for help with paperwork as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began taking applications for deportation deferrals and work permits under a new policy initiated by President Barack Obama.
The turnout led the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which organized the event, to begin turning immigrants away in the morning.
The policy, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, allows undocumented immigrants who had not turned 31 by June 15 to temporarily live and work in the United States.
Elizabeth Espinosa, a Chicago resident who arrived at Navy Pier hours before the event's 9 a.m. start time, said she was applying so she could attend college to become a registered nurse.
“It means not just equality, but ... a better hope for us and our future children,” Espinosa said. “It means so much more than just a piece of paper. It means our whole lives.”
Cristián García of Mundelein said he wanted the deportation reprieve and employment authorization so he could work as a computer technician. He also said he wanted his family to gain some peace of mind.
“Sometimes, because we don’t have documents and we’re not legal we don’t feel secure and we don’t have the same opportunities to study,” García said.
The line to apply deferred-action, in 126 seconds.
Applicants must prove they arrived in the United States before turning 16 and that they have lived in the country continuously for five years. They also must be a student or graduate or have served in the military, among other requirements.
Republicans have called the policy an election-year maneuver that bypasses Congress and favors illegal immigrants over U.S. citizens. They also point to the fact that legislation known as the Dream Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for many of the youths that are now applying for deferred-action, failed in the U.S. Congress.
Prominent Illinois Republicans — including U.S. Reps. Judy Biggert (R-13th), Aaron Schock (R-18th), Randy Hultgren (R-14th), Adam Kinzinger (R-11th) and Peter Roskam (R-6th) — did not make themselves available for comment.
Mitt Romney — the party’s presumed presidential nominee — has talked about vetoing the Dream Act if it were ever passed and has suggested pushing undocumented immigrants, as he puts it, to “self-deport.” Romney has not promised to keep Obama’s deferred-action policy in place.
The election and its possible impact on the deferred-action policy has Chicago immigration attorney Robert Cotter calling Wednesday's Navy Pier event “reckless.” He adds that the immigrants ought to wait to submit the paperwork until they see who wins November’s election.
“We could have a new president," Cotter said. “That new president could undo what’s been done in one day. One signature could undo everything. So I’m counseling my clients, ‘Look, you survived this far. If you can wait another 10 - 11 weeks, you’re going to be a lot more certain that you’re really going to get that work permit and that you’re not going to get a notice to appear in immigration court.’”
Yulizma Mendoza, 27, arrived at 2:30am to wait for a workshop on preparing her application for deferred deportation at Chicago's Navy Pier on Wednesday, August 15, 2012. (WBEZ/Peter Holderness)
This sentiment didn’t sit well with U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), one of the principal sponsors of the Dream Act. The senator attended Wednesday’s event and gestured to hundreds of young people filling out their applicants in the ballroom, saying it will be politically unfeasible to reverse this policy.
“I will tell you the force that they are creating is a moral force here, beyond a legal force,” Durbin said. “It is a moral force that, I believe, that as the American people support this 2 to 1, that’s what the polls tell us. They will support these young people being protected. If someone later comes along and tries to exploit the fact that they did the right thing, they did what they were told legally.”
Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-4th) said the scene at Chicago's Navy Pier resembled Ellis Island.
Immigrant advocates and others cautioned that the applications for deferred-action include all sorts of things — fingerprints, information about family members — that would be useful for deporting people.
The Department of Homeland Security says it won’t use such information for enforcement unless there’s evidence of criminal activity.