EAST CHICAGO | Wednesday marked the beginning of a new life for about 70 young people from across the region gathered outside the Casa Santo Toribio headquarters on Indianapolis Boulevard.
They were prepared to board a bus for Navy Pier in Chicago, where they would join thousands of other children of illegal immigrants to prove they are eligible for the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program.
To be eligible, people younger than 31 who entered the U.S. before age 16, lived in the country for at least five years and have not been convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors may stay in the the country to attend school or work without fear of deportation.
Those applying for the program either must be in school, have graduated from high school or have served in the military. For 19-year-old Erik Romo, of Hammond, the opportunity to attend college is foremost on his mind.
“I’m currently in college, but I also want to be able to work to pay for my education,” he said. “And I want to help my mom out financially. Today makes me feel like I really belong in this country now.”
Jose Bustos, who organized the Navy Pier trip on behalf of Casa Santo Toribio, a community organization that assists people with immigration issues, said that for many of the young people on their way to Chicago, a life in the U.S. is all they’ve ever known. Many of them only speak English, Bustos said.
“While the Deferred Action program is not a path to citizenship or permanent residency, we’ll take it,” he said. “It’s a beginning, a chance for these people to continue their higher education.”
Bustos said the group was looking forward to hearing from U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Chicago; U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who were expected to address the Navy Pier audience, as well as meet other “Childhood Arrivals” from around the area and attend a variety of informational workshops.
Bustos said there are 11,500 undocumented people in Indiana and about 90,000 in Illinois. An estimated 1 million people between ages 15 and 30 are expected to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program.
Among those is Jessica Cabrera, a 17-year-old Hammond High School student, who said she plans to major in communications at Purdue University.
“I didn’t realize until I was in high school that I’m not a U.S. citizen,” she said. “I want to go to school and work, maybe as a flight attendant at first, so I can help my family.”
Wendy Camacho, 21, of Hobart, has dreams of attending Indiana University Northwest and becoming a plastic surgeon.
“Not being a citizen is something you don’t talk about and keep in the family, but no more,” she said. “Today makes me feel like I’m not alone.”