Thousands of young illegal immigrants packed government centers across the nation Wednesday and sought help from volunteers on the first day they could apply to legally stay and work in the United States under a new federal initiative.
Under President Obama’s most ambitious immigration program — officially called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — illegal immigrants between the ages of 15 and 31 who were brought to America before the age of 16 and have no criminal record are able to apply to remain in the U.S. for at least two years and work legally.
Organizations around the nation launched a large-scale effort Wednesday to help applicants navigate the process.
In overflowing auditoriums, gyms and civic buildings around the U.S., volunteers and pro-bono lawyers answered questions and helped thousands of young immigrants, some of whom saw the program as their first chance to get a job, open a bank account and breathe easier for a couple of years without the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.
In Chicago, a line of thousands of undocumented students snaked around the ballroom at Navy Pier, wanting to find out more about how to apply from dozens of attorneys and volunteers. By midday, organizers with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights were turning people away and encouraging them to attend workshops scheduled for later in the month.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm and hope,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, the executive director of the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago-based immigration advocacy organization that helped organize the event at Navy Pier.
The main auditorium at Union County College in Elizabeth, N.J., was filled to capacity at 10 a.m. Students holding electric bills, transcripts and class schedules lined the walls, filled the seats and sat in the aisles to hear advice on what kinds of documents could be used to support their applications.
“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.”
Thousands of immigrants also converged in the lobbies of local consulates to get passports and identification cards needed to apply. Lines formed in Washington, D.C., before 7 a.m. In Houston, lines for the Mexican consulate stretched into downtown streets, creating traffic jams.
Nonprofit organizations on the Kansas-Missouri border collaborated to put together a workshop on how the immigration program will work and what applicants will need in order to apply.
“For the last month or so, we’ve been getting calls or walk-ins,” said Mary Lou Jaramillo, the CEO of a nonprofit advocacy group that works with the bi-state area’s Latino community. “Early on, they had questions: what could they do now? Now they want to know what comes next.”
Jamarillo said students are expected to come from as far as Manhattan, Kan., the home of Kansas State University and a two-hour drive from Kansas City.