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Trail of Dream students walk 1,500 miles to bring immigration message to Washington
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The students have something to say, but will they be heard?
Arizona's tough new law on illegal immigrants is everybody's preoccupation as their journey nears its end Saturday afternoon. The Trail of Dreams walk was their idea, but along the way they've been supported by such groups as the Florida Immigrant Coalition. The students will lead a march to Lafayette Park, where they will help preside over a rally expected to draw thousands in front of the White House to advocate for immigration reform. It's a safe bet all things Arizona will be jeered.
As the national debate grows palpably more bitter and polarized, Pacheco and Matos are the face of the most sympathetic segment of the illegal immigrant population. Theirs is the image that supporters shrewdly promote to advance their movement, and that even some opponents find difficult to categorically condemn. They were brought to this country as children -- Pacheco at 7 from Ecuador, Matos at 14 from Brazil -- and have made the most of American opportunity. They earned good grades and etched long résumés of extracurricular activities. Matos, 24, who has been ranked one of the nation's top community college students in academics, is studying economics and wants to be a teacher; Pacheco, 25, after earning three community college degrees, wants to start a music therapy program for autistic children.
As illegal immigrants, they don't qualify for student aid and have trouble affording four-year colleges. And they can't turn their studies into careers.
"What you see is the all-American girl," Pacheco says. "Orchestra, cross-country, basketball, ROTC."
Not everybody sees that girl. Her family in Miami is fighting deportation.
An estimated 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from high school each year and find themselves in similar circumstances.
"Nobody feels good about the situation these kids are in," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for reduced immigration. "It was the decision of their parents to violate the law that put their children in this difficult situation."
When parents violate other laws, such as paying taxes, no one suggests the consequences should be mitigated because of the effect on the children, Mehlman and other critics say.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter restrictions, says there might be a case for a narrow measure to benefit this "most sympathetic group of illegals" but not the adults who broke the law. For now, he says, pro-reform activists "use them as poster children for the other 11 million illegal immigrants."