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Navy Pier becomes a modern-day Ellis Island, full of ‘opportunity’

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Updated: September 17, 2012 1:11PM

Navy Pier was transformed into a modern-day Ellis Island on Wednesday as thousands of undocumented young people arrived in hopes of staking a claim to the American dream.

A line of mostly Hispanic teenagers and young adults started forming the previous night and by mid-morning it snaked all the way from the pier to the running paths along Lake Shore Drive.

There was Victor Cueto, 21, a UIC student from Back of the Yards, whose family illegally crossed the border from Mexico when he was 8 months old, and Katrin Zuniga, 19, of Logan Square, whose Honduran parents took a similar path when she was 7. Alyaa Bassiouni, 19, of Schaumburg, said she was 11 when her parents came from Egypt on a visa and never returned after it expired.

The word I heard over and over again from these young people was “opportunity,” which after all is one of the linchpins of what we call the American dream. They had come to Navy Pier for this “great opportunity” that for the first time could give them legal status, albeit temporary, in this country they already consider their home — and through work, a chance to succeed and prosper. Not a guarantee, mind you, but a chance.

Inside the pier’s Grand Ballroom, some huddled with immigration attorneys and volunteers trained to fill out the paperwork for a new federal program offering legal status to law-abiding immigrants brought here as children. Many more, like Cueto and Bassiouni, were told to try again another day. The pent-up desire to get right with America far exceeded the ability of the event’s sponsor, the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, to accommodate them.

For me, it was a beautiful sight inside the ballroom, knowing that behind each face represented a story of sacrifice and of some family’s aspirations for a better life in the U.S.

I realize a lot of you won’t see it that way, might even consider the Ellis Island comparison some sort of blasphemy considering most of those at Navy Pier entered this country through the back door while your family may have arrived through the front.

Sorry, I’m done arguing the point. Some of us will just have to agree to disagree.

But for those who still don’t understand “why those people don’t just go through the process” or “why they don’t just apply,” let’s make it clear: There hasn’t been any process for young people in their situation for nearly three decades. And before Wednesday — when an Obama administration program patterned on the Dream Act took effect — there hadn’t been any applications to fill out.

Since President Ronald Reagan (yes, Ronald Reagan) signed the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act, granting amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S., this country has been unable to reach agreement on what to do about the millions more who kept on coming.

The result is that more than 1 million people brought into the U.S. by their parents as children during the intervening decades, many of whom have known only this country and speak only English, are forced to live second-class lives in the shadows under threat of deportation.

It was actually Rep. Luis Gutierrez who made the Ellis Island comparison Wednesday, but I stole the line for myself because it seemed particularly apt as I surveyed the crowd of young would-be American citizens waiting patiently for the chance that many of them had worried would never come.

I could see shadows of the famous immigration station in the anterooms of the pier where applicants and their family members sprawled on the floor to wait for their numbers to be called.

Gutierrez, who has been one of the nation’s leading advocates for immigration reform, said something else I thought was particularly on point.

“These young people are much more Americans than they are immigrants,” Gutierrez said. “What we’re doing today is catching up on the paperwork.”

For those of you who see a program like this and immediately worry that these folks are just getting their foot in the door and next thing you know they’ll be using this to leverage something else, guess what? You’re right.

Gutierrez and Sen. Dick Durbin, who authored the Dream Act proposal that led to Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, made clear they see this as just a first step.

“Today, the students. Tomorrow, their moms and dads,” Gutierrez said.

They’ll have my support on that, too.

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