Facing his best chance at legal status in the United States, Alan Valdivia struggled to answer some basic questions about himself. When did his family bring him here from Mexico? At what age? By what route?
Valdivia, a 19-year-old UC Riverside student, was one of hundreds to appear Wednesday at the offices of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles seeking help in applying for work permits.
Tens of thousands more like him lined up nationwide on the first day of a new federal program that would allow people who were brought here illegally as children to defer deportation and obtain work permits provided they meet certain criteria, such as no serious criminal record.
PHOTOS: Undocumented youths apply for work permits
In Chicago, a line of thousands of undocumented students snaked around the ballroom at Navy Pier, where by midday organizers were turning people away and encouraging them to attend workshops scheduled for later in the month.
Students holding electric bills, transcripts and class schedules lined the walls, filled the seats and sat in the aisles of the main auditorium at Union County College in Elizabeth, N.J. Lines formed inWashington, D.C., before 7 a.m. In Houston, lines for the Mexican Consulate stretched into downtown streets, creating traffic jams.
"It was incredibly powerful," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who spoke during the information session in Elizabeth. "It was hard not to be moved by the understanding of what today means to so many young people across our nation who have literally dreamed of the day they could come out of the shadows."
In Los Angeles, people cradled babies, ordered pizza, ate chili-sprinkled mango and took shelter from scorching heat under jumbo-sized umbrellas along West 3rdStreet in Westlake. "This is a family affair," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a coalition spokesman. "Grandmas come, children come, fathers come."
Valdivia, the student, had brought his immunization record, but the volunteer helping him with his application wanted specifics he could not possibly remember.
He pulled out his BlackBerry and dialed. "Hey dad, do you remember how old I was when I got here?" he asked.
Four years old, maybe 5, his dad speculated.
"This is hard," Valdivia said after hanging up.
Valdivia, who is majoring in human biology, said he scraped together the non-refundable $465 application fee from friends who had summer jobs.
The coalition said that it would stay open Wednesday until everyone in line had an appointment, and that its outreach efforts have informed 36,000 young people since President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in June.
Sean Tan, 19, a UC Berkeley student majoring in economics, got in line at 6 a.m. Wednesday. He said his parents brought him from the Philippines when he was 11, on a tourist visa that has since expired.
Tan said he was the valedictorian of his Los Angeles high school, and did not find out about his illegal status until he applied for a college preparatory program and was rejected twice.
"I knew my education had to come before everything," Tan said. "It is something I can own for myself, because I do not have an identity because of my legal status."
Tan said he put aside his fears of deportation to become active in the Dream Act movement, which is pushing for a route to citizenship for immigrants brought here as children. "The risk I take, I have to take," Tan said. "You do not have a say if you stay in the shadows."
Hope and expectation permeated Wednesday's crowd, but so did anxiety.
Minor applicants worried about how much detail they would have to provide the government about their parents, many of whom are undocumented themselves. Adult applicants were concerned about confidentiality for their spouses.
"There is a lot of fear," said Myrna Ortiz, a youth organizer at the coalition.
The organization said there were more than 218,000 potential applicants in Los Angeles County alone.
Guillermina Nino, 25, whose family brought her from Mexico at age 15, waited with her 8-month-old baby boy, who slept in a stroller.
"I want him to be better than me," she said.
Nino said she recently graduated from Cal State Northridge, the first in her family to get a college degree. She said her husband works in construction, and she hoped he would be able to chip in for the $465 when he is paid at month's end.
Elsewhere in Westlake, hundreds stood in line at the Central American Resource Center, waiting for informational workshops and lawyers' advice. Darkis Caballeros, 20, who waited with her 16-year-old sister, was ecstatic at the notion of no longer hiding her immigration status.
The sisters had left Guatemala City five years ago to join their mother in Lawndale. Darkis said she wants to become a medical assistant if she's allowed to work legally.
"And have a car," she said, smiling. "With a license."
Martha Arevalo, the center's executive director, described it as a "historic day."
"They feel American, but the world told them differently," Arevalo said of the applicants. "It's a temporary solution, but a solution nonetheless."
Diego Rios, 19, lives in Santa Monica and works as a prep cook at a chain restaurant, with fake papers. He wants to work as an emergency medical technician but can't afford classes. He said he was almost 5 when his mother brought him to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico.
"I'm nervous," he said Wednesday, waiting for a workshop to start. "I could get papers and work legally, but there's a lot that could go wrong." Now and then, he said, he gets jealous of his American-born brother, who is 12.
"I get mad at him because he doesn't realize he has the potential to do a lot of things over here that a lot of other people don't," Rios said.
Times staff writers Corina Knoll, Brian Bennett, Laura J. Nelson and Weston Phippen contributed to this report.