CHICAGO - On Aug. 15, Navy Pier here transformed into New York's Ellis Island. Instead of seeing the Statue of Liberty welcome them, it was the Chicago skyline.
Thirteen thousand young immigrants lined up to seek legal status under a new Obama administration program. These immigrants were different from their forebears who applied for legal status on Ellis Island. They didn't arrive at the pier here in boats from overseas. They came instead by bus, by car, by train, and on foot from Chicago and other towns across the Midwest, because they have lived in this country for most of their lives.
The thousands who came out in the open yesterday with their undocumented status did so for the first time knowing that, as of yesterday, they were under the protection of an executive order issued June 15 by President Barack Obama.
"We are so glad about this huge turnout," said a jubilant Lawrence Benito, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, the sponsoring organization, "and we are so glad that people haven't listened to those voices telling us it was too dangerous to come out in the open."
Benito said that by 1 p.m., 11,500 people of the 13,000 who showed up had already been served and that people should check the coalition's website, dreamrelief.org, for information about additional application events.
The president's order, which took effect yesterday, frees more than 1.2 million youth nationwide from fear of deportation. Those born after June 15, 1981, who came to the U.S. before they were 16 are eligible if they are in school, have graduated from high school or have been honorably discharged from the U.S. armed forces. Successful applicants also must have a clean criminal record. Those granted approval would be given a two-year deferral from deportation and legal authorization to work.
The crowds of young immigrants, carrying everything from school records to plane and boat tickets as proof of time spent in the U.S., backed up half a mile into Millennium Park.
Among the most anxious on the lines were young mothers and fathers, sometimes carrying their U.S.-born babies.
Carmella Velez, 22, from Elmwood Park said, "I am an American, I came here from Mexico when I was two." Holding up her 18 month-old-baby, she said, "I can never leave my Nydia. What if they try to deport me? I don't know any other country. I love this country and I love my baby. She is a citizen and I am not. How can that be?"
Georgina Villa, 46, was with her two sons, Jorge, 19 and Miguel, 17, both community college students.
She wept openly as Jorge took a packet of forms from a coalition volunteer who was assisting him at a table in the packed Grand Ballroom at the pier.
"I am so happy for my sons," she said.
Putting his arm around his mother, Miguel said, "What she has sacrificed for us can never be repaid, but we will fight until she too can have the legal status she deserves. No woman who has sacrificed and worked like my mother deserves to be kicked out of the country," he said.
The Villa family joined thousands of other immigrants at the event, which was half college fair and legal advice clinic and half rally. When the attendees rose to their feet in the Navy Pier ballroom to recite the Pledge of Allegiance it was a solemn moment.
One volunteer helping the applicants was Dr. Gloria Valiente, a pediatrician with a private practice in Chicago.
"Only yesterday I treated a young boy in my office," she said, "who was nervous, depressed and unable to eat.
"Like so many others of my patients he has anxiety over the fear of separation from his family. It's something kids are living with and when I started to realize the connection with the immigration problem I felt I had to do something to help," she said.
Teresa Lee, now in her 20s, was brought here from Brazil when she was two years old.
"We lived in a cramped apartment and had very little but there was a piano in the place and I started to play as a little child," she recounted.
By the age of 17 she was playing piano for the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
"Colleagues and teachers said, 'How about college and scholarships?' I had never told anyone about my undocumented status and now, suddenly, all my progress was going to be stopped. What would I do if they ever tried to send me back to Brazil? I can't even speak Portuguese," she said.
Lee is active now with the immigrant rights coalition and said she has great respect for the two Illinois Democrats, Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Sen. Dick Durbin, who introduced the DREAM Act into Congress.
In December 2010, it passed the House 216-208. Although it had the support of 55 Senators, a clear majority, a Republican filibuster blocked it from passing.
Both Durbin and Gutierrez were at Navy Pier.
"President Obama deserves a lot of credit," said Gutierrez. "He kept his word. He wanted us to get the DREAM Act passed but when the Republicans blocked us in the Senate, he kept his word and took a brave stance by issuing this executive order."
Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP