Lines of young undocumented immigrants began wrapping around Chicago's Navy Pier long before the sun rose Wednesday morning. By noon, some 13,000 people were packed onto the pier, all seeking advice on how to apply for legal status and alleviate their lifelong fear of deportation.
From Chicago to Los Angeles, thousands of young immigrants flooded consulates, cafeterias and convention centers seeking legal guidance and paper proof that they are eligible for a "deferred action permit" which will allow them to work legally for two years in the country they grew up in.
But in Arizona, the benefits of legal status still be a far off dream. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, who is notorious for her hardline stance on immigration, signed an executive order Wednesday evening barring people with deferred status from obtaining driver's licenses or other state benefits.
Under Arizona law, people applying for a driver's license could use their federal work permit to prove that they were in the country legally. Under Brewer's order, work permits given to people through the deferred action process will not qualify for a license.
"The Arizona driver's license is the gateway to public benefits in this state," said Matthew Benson, the spokesman for the governor's office. "If the state doesn't have the authority to block these illegal aliens from getting driver's licenses our agencies will have no way of knowing who is entitled to public benefits."
Brewer said in the executive order that providing benefits to the young immigrants, as many as 80,000 of whom reside in Arizona, will "have significant and lasting effects on the Arizona budget, health care system and additional public benefits that Arizona taxpayers fund."
Arizona has been a hotspot of contention over immigration policy having instated one of the strictest immigration laws in the country in 2010. The majority of the law, often referred to as SB 1070, was struck down by the Supreme Court in July. The court upheld the most contentious aspect of the law, the authority of police to check the legal status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.
But because the deferred action permits do not make immigrants legal residents, Brewer's executive order "really doesn't do much," said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Arkansas, who studies gubernatorial power.
"It was certainly an opportunity for her [Gov. Brewer] to reiterate her credibility on the immigration issue but it really didn't do anything substantively to change things," Barth said. "She was essentially reiterating what was already in the law."
Gov. Brewer's spokesman confirmed that the executive order "does not change existing law," it just "reaffirms" it.
Ann Morse, program director at the National Conference on State Legislature's Immigrant Policy Project, said Brewer's order merely "affirmatively stated" what had been left unsaid. While the permits prevent deportation, they do not give immigrants access to most state benefits.
Morse said "dreamers" are stuck in a legal "limbo" with the deferred action permits. They cannot be deported, but they are not on a path to citizenship and are only granted the right to work for two years.
"It is a pause button until Congress acts," Morse said.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has tried for 11 years to pass the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came into the country as children and attended college or served in the millitary. He said the two-year deferred action permits, which immigrants could begin applying for on Wednesday, are a "positive step forward, but there's much more to do."
"It was an overwhelming day," Durbin, who met with families on the Navy Pier in Chicago on Wednesday, told ABC News. "You can see the expectation and happiness in their faces. It really felt like this was their chance to become a part of America."
While having criticized President Obama's deferred action permit policy as a politically-motivated way to pick up Latino votes in November, Durbin dubbed it "courageous" and "the right thing to do" because it puts the country on a path toward more comprehensive reforms.
"I believe this will make passing the Dream Act easier because as people come to know these individuals and how anxious they are to be part of America's future they will realize what a waste it will be to turn them away," Durbin said.
The massive crowds Durbin saw in Chicago mirrored those across the country. In Los Angeles, the Mexican consulate was bursting with 500 more people than usual on Wednesday and processed 200 more passports than on a typical day.
In Houston at least 2,000 "dreamers," those immigrants who came to the country as children and who are seeking legal status under President Obama's new deferred action permit process, flocked to the Mexican consulate on Tuesday. Houston police officers were called in for two days of crowd control.
But after the 8-page application is complete, the $465 fee paid, the five types of proof of eligibility are collected and the extensive application packet is mailed off, hopeful dreamers will have to wait "several weeks," before the threat of deportation disappears and their permits arrive, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
As many as 1.8 million "dreamers" could be eligible for the two-year permits, according to the Migration Policy Institute. To be eligible, immigrants must to be under the age of 31, came to the United States before their 16th birthday, attended school or enrolled in the military and be able to prove they resided in the country for the past five years.
"Most people were relieved that they had something to apply, for some way to obtain employment authorization and a social security number and in most states a driver's license," said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, a legal director at the National Immigration Justice Center, who advised thousands of applicants at Chicago's Navy Pier on Wednesday.