Illegal Immigrants Line Up by Thousands for Deportation Deferrals
In Chicago, several thousand people lined up at Navy Pier to get information about the deferred action program for young illegal immigrants. More Photos Â»
By JULIA PRESTON Published: August 15, 2012
CHICAGO â€” Tens of thousands of young illegal immigrants waited excitedly in lines as long as a mile and thronged to information sessions across the country on Wednesday, the first day that a federal immigration agency began accepting applications for deportation deferrals that include permits to work legally.
The public outpouring surprised both federal officials and immigrant advocates, who had expected an enthusiastic response to the Obama administrationâ€™s deferral program but were unprepared for the size and intensity of it. At Navy Pier here, young people began lining up on Tuesday evening for a counseling session about the program that was organized by an immigrantsâ€™ rights group.
By midmorning Wednesday, the line wound down the long pier, through a park and along an expressway, with young people holding sheafs of documents that they hoped would prove that they qualified for the program. By noon, event organizers said, 11,500 people had attended briefings, and more than 2,000 people had been turned away because there was not enough time or staff to deal with them.
â€œI know that out there many people are looking for the same thing as I am,â€ said Reyna Martinez, 19, who has lived in the United States since she was 7. â€œWe are not alone; we stand together as a big crowd.â€
Thousands of immigrants also waited in lines outside the offices of immigrantsâ€™ groups and flooded churches and law offices in Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Boston and Houston, among other cities. Many of the young immigrants waiting at Navy Pier were wary â€” the program does not provide any legal immigration status like a green card, and some would-be applicants worried that there was a risk in coming forward so publicly â€” but they said any progress toward a legal foothold in the United States would be worth it.
â€œI know there are a lot of people without documentation who want to continue their school and work and make a better life for their families,â€ said Darinca Barron, 17, who added that she was brought here by her parents from Mexico when she was 6. â€œThis is just a chance that you have to take.â€
Under the program, the federal government will grant a two-year reprieve from deportation to illegal immigrants who are under age 31, have been in this country since they were children and meet other requirements.
President Obama initiated the program on June 15 using his executive authority. He did so after legislation known as the Dream Act â€” which he supported and which would have given legal status to young immigrants â€” stalled in Congress. He made broad use of his presidential powers, with as many as 1.7 million immigrants estimated to be eligible for deferrals.
The agency managing the program, Citizenship and Immigration Services, had only 60 days to prepare for the deluge of paperwork. The application form was first published on the Internet on Tuesday afternoon. Officials at the agency said on Wednesday that no major problems had been reported. Immigrants must mail in the applications, which include a request for the deportation deferral and separate forms for a work permit. Agency officials and immigrant advocates have warned young people that there will be no appeals of applications that are denied, so they should have all their documents in order. As a result, few applications were submitted on Wednesday. Most immigrants who turned out were seeking guidance about whether they would be eligible and what documents they needed to prove that they met the requirements. At the session at Navy Pier â€” famous for its Ferris wheel â€” organizers from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights set up rows of tables in a ballroom where dozens of lawyers and volunteers offered free individual counseling.
Three prominent Illinois Democrats, all longtime supporters of the Dream Act, gathered at Navy Pier to mingle with the young immigrants and reap some of the political benefits from Mr. Obamaâ€™s initiative. One of them, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, wrote the original Dream Act bill 11 years ago. Mr. Durbin, the Senateâ€™s second-ranking Democrat, said he was elated to see the huge crowd. â€œYou canâ€™t stop this force,â€ Mr. Durbin said to applause from the immigrants. â€œThis is a force of people who have grown up in this country and want to be part of its future. They are creating a moral force beyond a legal force.â€
Another of the Democrats, Representative Luis Gutierrez, compared the scene at Navy Pier to the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island a century ago. â€œWhile they saw New York City then, today they see Chicago,â€ he said.
The third Democrat, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was Mr. Obamaâ€™s White House chief of staff, announced that the city had raised $275,000 in private donations for a college scholarship fund for immigrants who were granted deferrals. Mr. Emanuel pressed home his political point. â€œDonâ€™t let anybody tell you on a day like today that who sits in that Oval Office does not matter,â€ he said. Obama campaign strategists had hoped that halting the deportations would help the president among Hispanics, whose votes could be pivotal in several states.
Republicans have criticized the deportation deferrals as a form of backdoor amnesty for immigrants who broke the law. They say the effort to give work permits to so many of them is poorly timed, with the unemployment rate at more than 8 percent.
Some states greeted the initiative with less enthusiasm than Illinois. In Arizona, Gov. Jan Brewer, issued an executive order on Wednesday barring immigrants who are granted a reprieve from getting public benefits or obtaining driversâ€™ licenses.
She instructed state agencies to carry out whatever changes were necessary to safeguard â€œthe intent of Arizona voters and lawmakers,â€ who have passed laws and approved ballot initiatives that prevent anyone other than legal residents from accessing taxpayer-financed benefits. In New York, the City Council announced that it had set aside $3 million to provide free legal services to deferral applicants through a network of community organizations.
â€œThe City Council has made this investment because we believe that undocumented immigrants have a right to an education and a safe and productive life here in the U.S.,â€ Speaker Christine C. Quinn said.
Steven Yaccino contributed reporting from Chicago, Fernanda Santos from Phoenix, and Kirk Semple from New York.
Hart Immigration provides immigration services in Los Angeles, Orange County, and surrounding areas.