Thousands of undocumented immigrants jammed the installations of Chicago's Navy Pier, where some stood in line all night to be among the first to apply for a new program that promises protection from deportation.
"I arrived at midnight with my cousins and there were already people in line," a young woman named Heidi told Efe while standing a few steps from the tables manned by lawyers and volunteers from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, or ICIRR.
It had been 12 hours since the 18-year-old Mexican woman got in line, holding against her chest a file with the necessary information and documents to prove that she had resided in the United States since the age of 6.
Just like Heidi, the dozens of young people standing nearby in the gigantic hall where the application procedures were under way had waited for hours for their turn to speak with one of the ICIRR personnel on hand to help them.
Fanny said she arrived without papers from Mexico with her mother and siblings when she was 8 and had to wait three years to be reunited with her father in Chicago.
"I was able to study at the university with scholarships and I got accepted to the University of Chicago for a Master's, but my situation is an exception because we undocumented people don't have many opportunities. I see the future being better," she said.
Organizers estimated that some 12,000 people came from all over Illinois, Ohio and even as far away as Georgia to the Navy Pier, one of Chicago's main tourist attractions.
Before beginning the process of signing people up the volunteers went along the line to warn the young people on hand that they would not be able to attend to many of them. "Today is the first day, not the last. There will be other workshops in the coming weeks," was the message.
The ICIRR said that about 1,500 young people on Wednesday will receive the help of 60 volunteer attorneys to apply for the Deferred Action program.
Another 6,000 received information packets with forms they must fill out.
More than 7,000 young people used the Web site dreamrelief.org to sign up.
"We apologize, but we're learning. I never saw a demand of this kind," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who presided over an event kicking off the effort along with Sen. Richard Durbin and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Deferred Action would allow an undocumented young person to remain in the country for two years and get a work permit.
"This is an historic humanitarian moment and I personally salute the president (Barack Obama) for his leadership," said Durbin, co-sponsor of the stalled DREAM Act, a bill aimed at helping the same people now eligible for Deferred Action.
Think-tanks estimate that 1.3 million people could be eligible for Deferred Action.
Gutierrez said he was confident that the massive turnout on Wednesday "helps break the political obstacles that are impeding ... immigration reform."
The Deferred Action program is open to undocumented immigrants 30 years old and younger who were brought to the United States before the age of 16.
Applicants will need five years of continuous residence in the country, a high school diploma or GED, and proof of current or previous military service or college enrollment.
Those seeking deferred action will also have to submit fingerprints and other biometric data and undergo an extensive background check, as well as pay a fee of $465. EFE