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Thousands of undocumented youth line up for immigration program


Those applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections, must:

• Have been under the age of 16 when they came to the United States.

• Have lived in the United States for 5 years continuously since at least June 15, 2007.

• Be in school, be a high school graduate, have a GED or have been honorably discharged from the military.

• Not have a felony conviction or been convicted of a significant misdemeanor, three or more misdemeanors and not pose a public safety threat.

• Be 30 years old or younger as of June 15, 2012.

Source: U.S. government

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Updated: September 17, 2012 12:52PM

With her Palatine High School ID around her neck, Melanie Colin sat in Navy Pier’s grand ballroom Wednesday and opened a pink folder stuffed with papers, the start of a slow process of documenting how 13 of her 15 years have been spent living in the United States.

She was born in Mexico, and her parents brought her to America when she was 2 years old.

“It’s really, really important,” Colin, a high school sophomore, said of applying for the legal right to live in the U.S. “With this I can get a job and I can help my mom pay for me to go to college.”

More than 10,000 undocumented youths, like Colin, lined up Wednesday morning at Navy Pier for their first shot at a federal program that will protect them from deportation and provide opportunities to work and study legally in the U.S.

The didn’t have the ordinary documents of an American life — a Social Security card, a driver’s license, a birth certificate from a nearby hospital.

So they came with anything they could find: preschool diplomas and high school report cards; hospitalization records and immunization cards; papers their parents had carefully collected in hopes that the day might come when the government would ask for them, that the government would ask their children to stay.

Karina Colin, Melanie’s mother, stood over her daughter as she filled out the application. She said she wasn’t afraid that giving the government personal information could result in legal action against her daughter.

“If it helps her, I’m not scared,” she said in Spanish, her daughter translating.

“She has hope,” Melanie Colin said.

Wednesday’s event, organized by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, celebrated the first day of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program patterned on the failed Dream Act.

The historic program offers undocumented youths the chance at eligibility for work permits and driver’s licenses.

Applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis, and all those requesting deferred action will undergo background checks.

Announced by President Barack Obama’s administration in June, the program has come under fire by some Republicans as an overreach of Obama’s executive power and a way to pander to Hispanic voters, whose votes may prove crucial in the November election.

A number of Democratic politicians at Navy Pier said Wednesday was the first step in permanently changing immigration law.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who introduced the Dream legislation 11 years ago, called Wednesday’s event a “moment in history” driven by a “moral force.”

“What we are doing here is giving these young people a chance to become a legal part of America,” he said.

The coalition planned to help 1,500 young adults file applications Wednesday, and thousands more would be able to attend information seminars about the process. There were more than 800 volunteers at the event, including 60 attorneys.

By 10 a.m., a crowd estimated at 11,000 spilled out of Navy Pier, south on Lake Shore Drive past Wacker Drive.

Gladys Leyva, 21, of Addison, arrived at 6:15 a.m. and estimated she was “2,000-something” in line. She didn’t mind waiting.

“It’s like a dream finally coming true,” she said. “I’ve been wanting this since I was young.”

Leyva, whose parents brought her from Mexico when she was 2, considers herself more American than Mexican. She speaks better English than Spanish. But until Wednesday, she could never shake the fear that she would be deported for living in the U.S. illegally.

Leyva hopes this will allow her to go to school full time — she takes classes every other semester at the College of DuPage while working full time — and become a teacher or chef.

“This is just like a beginning,” she said.

Lorenzo Ugalde, his wife and their five children left their Hartford, Mich., home at 3 a.m., driving straight to Navy Pier.

While his youngest four were born in the United States, his oldest, 18-year-old Isamar, was born in Mexico City. Now a senior in high school, she came to the U.S. as a 1-year-old.

“We want her to go to college,” said Ugalde, a landscaper who was wearing a University of Michigan polo shirt. “I want everyone to go to college, to get a career. I want them to be prepared for the future. That’s the most important thing for us.”

Alex De Jesus, a 28-year-old software developer from Brighton Park, got in line at 6:30 a.m. but walked out nearly four hours later when he realized he likely would not get processed.

De Jesus had been hoping to get in on the initiative in person but figured he would fill out the forms online given the massive crowd.

“It will help a lot or people,” the college graduate said, adding he was particularly pleased to have the opportunity to drive with a valid license. “I guess it might not lead to legalization. I’m OK with that.”

Lawrence Benito, executive director of the coalition, said when he arrived at Navy Pier at 6 a.m., several thousand people were already in line.

“I was moved to see all these people,” said Benito, whose parents emigrated from the Philippines.

“As a child of immigrants, it’s the American dream. It’s what generations of immigrations came for — a better life,” he said.

In response to critics who argue that the young adults are benefitting from their parents’ illegal actions, Benito said, “We haven’t made significant immigration laws since the late 1960s when my parents came. These students have done everything we’ve asked them to. They stayed in school, furthered their education; some want to join the military.”

When the program was announced earlier this summer , Daniel Adan, 19, said his mother gave him a “huge hug.”

She handed him a stack of papers she had kept, including vaccination records, to prove he had lived in the U.S. since he was 1.

A civil engineering major at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Adan graduated from Amundsen High School with a 4.81 GPA. A proper ID would help the restaurant delivery worker qualify for student loans and get a better job to pay for school, he said.

Coalition officials estimate there are 75,000 undocumented youths in Illinois and more than 1 million in the United States.

One of them, Jhoncany Roque, saw Wednesday as a day of celebration.

“I see the light,” Roque said.

Contributing: John H. White

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