Hundreds of illegal immigrants lined an alley wall in Southeast Baltimore on Thursday night, each with a dream in mind.
One saw a medical career, another a life in fashion. All said they were eager to take the first step toward their goals: filling out a federal application asking the government for a reprieve from deportation.
The event, sponsored by the organization Casa de Maryland, was designed to assist immigrants with compiling the documentation and filling out the paperwork needed to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, launched Wednesday under an executive order issued by President Barack Obama.
"We don't know the future yet," Eswin Herrarte, 16, a rising junior at Benjamin Franklin High School originally from Guatemala, said as he waited in line. "We just have to cross our fingers."
The program, announced June 15, allows those under the age of 31 who were brought to the United States before the age of 16 to stay and work in the country for two years without fear of deportation. A work permit will let them get drivers' licenses, open bank accounts and gain access to a number of other important benefits.
The applicants must be in school, have graduated high school or served in theU.S. armed forces, and have no criminal record, among other criteria.
Criticized by some Republicans as a play for votes by Obama, the program has received widespread praise among immigrant communities, as was evident at the event Thursday.
Hopeful applicants spoke of the difficulty of growing up in the country but feeling like an outsider, of yearning to get an education, get a job and prove their value to other people.
"Sometimes you feel that you don't belong here even when you feel this country is your own," said Jhonatan Llamas Pineda, 19, of Annapolis, who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 2007.
Pineda hopes one day to attend the Art Institute of New York City to study fashion design. Applying for the deferred action program "means that I am going to have an opportunity, a chance, to show people I can be better than they thought," he said.
Said Herrarte's sister, Sindy Herrarte, 18, who attends Chesapeake Center for Youth Development and has dreams of a medical career: "This is a great thing. We're going to be able to go to school now not worrying. It's almost like being legal."
Organizers said they were happy with the turnout.
"We're all very excited," said Gustavo Andrade, organizing director of Casa de Maryland, which advocates for immigrants. "Just the sheer fact that we're here with so many people shows the enthusiasm in our community for the change coming. It's been a long time coming."
Andrade said the event was geared toward providing people with proper advice — staff and volunteer lawyers were on hand to walk applicants through the process — so they don't have to rely on "unscrupulous" people known as "notarios," who often lack law degrees but charge exorbitant fees for application assistance.
The group's first event in Langley Park on Wednesday drew 1,200 people. The event in Baltimore was expected to draw 500, Andrade said, and the group plans to continue holding the events at the same time each week. There aren't many similar events occurring around the country, he said.
Some applicants Thursday night had traveled to Baltimore from Wilmington, Del., and Atlantic City, N.J.
Omar Ballesteros, 18, of Lansdowne, who was waiting outside with his sister, Nydia Ballesteros, 16, said he finds it "ironic" that they have to go through the process at all, having come to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 5 and his sister was 3.
Still, the rising first-year student at the Community College of Baltimore County knows he has to fill out the application so he can do all the things his friends are beginning to do, he said.
"I see this as a way to be equal," he said, "to have a voice."
Nathaly Uribe, a 17-year-old rising senior at Glen Burnie High School who came to the U.S. from Chile in 1997, feels the same way, she said.
"For a lot of people, it's a policy change," she said of the deferred action program. "But for dreamers, it's a lot more."