Viewpoint: Immigration Reform’s New Day

Aug. 15 saw the beginning of the President's new "deferred action" directive and thousands of young undocumented queued up to take advantage of it around the country

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Hundreds of people line up around the block from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles offices to apply for deportation reprieve in Los Angeles, Aug. 15, 2012.

There is a new normal — a noticeable and irreversible shift — in the way our country is talking about its undocumented residents, especially young people who’ve grown up in the U.S. and call America home.

And today was the most tangible and visible part yet of that shift.

(READ: Not Legal Not Leaving)

Starting early this morning, under the Obama administration’s “deferred action” directive announced earlier this summer, upwards of 1.5 million undocumented youth under age 31 can apply for work permits and live without fear of deportation, at least temporarily. Make no mistake: this move, under a Democratic White House, is the most significant development in the fight for immigrant rights since the Republican icon Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. Here in Chicago, which held a “Dream Relief Day” that provided information and assistance to eager and anxious applicants, more than 11,000 undocumented youth, many of them teenagers, lined up by mid-morning. The line stretched by several blocks under the mild summer sun.

Online, within social networks, the mood has been largely enthusiastic as undocumented young people and their allies examine the finer details of the application, which cost $465. By mid-afternoon a graphic titled “Deferred Action Budget” was being shared on Facebook and providing a breakdown of costs (and inspiration): “Deferred Action Application: $0. Work Permit Application: $380. Biometrics:  $85. Following Your Dream: Priceless.” On Twitter, a newly created fund that is raising money to offset the cost of the fees, especially for low-income immigrants, started making the rounds. Online and offline, the images were striking, bordering on surreal: the very government that undocumented people once feared and hid from is now seeking to welcome and register many of them.

“What if they go after us once they collect our names and information?” I overheard a bespectacled young Latina ask her friend while they waited.

“We’re here. We’re in line. This is good news,” the friend responded. They laughed, nervously.

(PHOTOS: From the Family Photos of an Undocumented Immigrant)

Striking still is the silence from the leaders of the Republican Party who’ve been relatively measured in criticizing the directive, lest they continue alienating a young multicultural generation that has equated the GOP with being the anti-immigrant party.

Standing on Lakeshore Drive, bearing witness to history, I couldn’t help but think of all the young undocumented people — of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, whose dreams are as diverse as America itself — who inspired me to “come out” and disclose my undocumented status in an essay for the New York Times Magazine last summer. Their resilience, courage and activism, their insistence to be seen as human beings, made this day possible. I also couldn’t help but think of the 35 undocumented youth from across the country who stood with me on a cover photograph for TIME magazine earlier this summer, under the headline “We are Americans — just not legally.” Most of them qualify for deferred action, and when they found out that I do not (I am 31 and missed the age cut-off by four months), they comforted me and assured me that the fight is not over.

Indeed, the fight continues for broad and necessary reform that addresses the complexity and nuances of a complex and nuanced issue. Deferred action, after all, is not the DREAM Act, the once-bipartisan bill that grants a permanent path to legalization. Under a controversial program called Secure Communities, families are still being separated and people are still being deported. Our mothers and fathers, our older brothers and sisters — people who contribute to the economy, who are, in fact, integral parts of our economic and social well-being — are still living in fear. In other words, today is only the beginning, just one temporary step in a long journey for permanent reform.

History only moves forward, one step at a time.

MORE: Inside the World of the “Illegal” Immigrant

Vargas is a journalist and the founder of Define American, an immigration-awareness campaign.