Thousands of young immigrants lined up Wednesday at Navy Pier for guidance with a new federal program that would help them avoid deportation, and the crowd was so large that workshop organizers had to turn many of them away.
At least 13,000 people showed up for help in putting together identity documents and filling out the detailed forms on the first day that the federal government began accepting applications, which far exceeded what organizers could handle.
Like many others that came to apply today, 19-year-old Diana Rojano of Waukegan spoke of the current difficulties of living in the country without U.S. citizenship.
"You dream, but those dreams become little, you know," she said. "You want to dream big, but they become little again."
President Barack Obama in June announced the policy, which will allow young immigrants to get work permits but not a path to citizenship. The idea was to stop deporting many illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Attempts at passing such legislation failed.
Politicians known for their advocacy of immigration law reform were quick to claim the day as an historical marker.
"Navy Pier is today's Ellis Island, and while they saw New York City, today they see Chicago," U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez said. "But the most important thing is they see America. They see a place where there is a bright future for them."
Immigrant rights advocates in Chicago had the capacity to guide 1,500 people through complex process, which they reached by 10 a.m. Wednesday. The majority of the rest signed up for future workshops, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
"We knew that students were interested, but what we didn't know is that a lot of people brought a friend or brought family," said Benito Lawrence, the head of the group. "It's a beautiful day. When I drove in today and saw the lines, it was an emotional event."
The line from the iconic tourist attraction snaked far outside the gates on to surrounding streets. Many had camped out overnight.
The policy applies to a narrow group of immigrants: They must prove they arrived in the country before they turned 16, are 30 or younger and are in school or graduated or served in the military, among other things. They can't have committed serious crimes or pose a safety threat. The forms have to be accompanied with a passport or birth certificate, school transcripts, medical and financial records and military service records. Some applications might require sworn affidavits.
The event in Chicago was one of several nationwide and attracted people from surrounding states. Attendees included Chicago Democrats such as Gutierrez, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.
Durbin addressed concerns that information used in the application process might be used against applicants at a later date.
"The force they are creating is a moral force beyond a legal force," Durbin said.
Arturo Godinez, 19, of Elgin was among those who showed up at Navy Pier for help.
He waited for five hours before deciding to try the process on his own at home. Godinez was brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a young boy and has long overstayed a visitor's visa. To get by, he's been working odd jobs and selling paintings that he's made. But he hoped the work permit would help him get a steady job.
Godinez said it was a welcomed policy.
"I think the Obama administration has done what they could do," he said. "And it's just that they can't do enough. It's never going to be enough."
Hundreds of thousands of people could benefit from the program, which is beginning just months before what promises to be a tight contest for the White House in which immigrant voters may play an important role.
Some Republican lawmakers have accused Obama of sidestepping Congress with the new program to boost his political standing and of favoring illegal immigrants over unemployed U.S. citizens.