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Trail of Dream students walk 1,500 miles to bring immigration message to Washington

Four Trail of Dreams students, including Gaby Pacheco, 25, left, and Felipe Matos, 24, right, walked 1,500 miles from Florida to Washington to advocate for the Dream Act.
Four Trail of Dreams students, including Gaby Pacheco, 25, left, and Felipe Matos, 24, right, walked 1,500 miles from Florida to Washington to advocate for the Dream Act. (Sarah L. Voisin - Washington Post)

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Walking north on Route 1, the students from Miami reached the outskirts of Alexandria in the rain Monday afternoon.

A truck driver named Carlos Soliz stood by the side of the road wearing a cowboy hat, strumming his guitar and singing a greeting to the walkers.

They had trekked through sunshine and snow, crashed in churches and on activists' couches, told their stories hundreds of times.

Besides Pacheco and Matos, there were Carlos Roa, 22, brought by his parents from Caracas, Venezuela, at 2; and Juan Rodriguez, 20, who was brought from Bogota, Colombia, when he was 6 -- and who last year became the only one of the four to obtain legal residency.

"I'm Carlos Roa," Roa begins. "I'm undocumented, and I'm not afraid."

Not afraid. But wary. When an American-flag-waving delegation of their Alexandria hosts, Tenants and Workers United, briefly marches in a lane of traffic, blocking cars, the trekkers stick law-abidingly to the sidewalk.

Roa remembers first becoming acutely aware of his separate status -- living a different reality -- when he graduated from high school and the assistant principal, whom he considered a mentor, asked what he planned to do.

"Join the military," Roa said, though he knew it wasn't true. Illegal immigrants can't joint the military. He couldn't admit to the assistant principal that he was an undocumented person.

"Venezuela would be a strange land if I was deported," Roa says. "I'm an American."

Pacheco felt the isolation of her status in high school. It prompted her to "come out of the closet" as an illegal immigrant in 10th grade, she says, and spurred her to overcompensate by taking every Advanced Placement class and after-school activity she could manage, in case such opportunities suddenly disappeared.

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A proposal known as the Dream Act, designed to offer a path to citizenship for students like the trekkers, has bipartisan support in the House and the Senate but has been ensnared in the politics of immigration. Last week Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) called on Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to defer action against immigrants who would qualify for Dream Act benefits.

As of Friday, the trekkers were about four miles short of completing their odyssey. They had made it on foot as far as Chirilagua, the Salvadoran-inflected neighborhood of Alexandria, where they were feted Monday evening by more than 200 people at the headquarters of Tenants and Workers United.

It's been a busy week. They requested a meeting with Obama. The White House countered by offering a meeting with senior adviser Valerie Jarrett. The trekkers turned it down. They said they had believed in Obama's campaign promises to support the Dream Act and immigration reform, "so we want to talk to him," Pacheco says.

They drove into Washington on Wednesday to try to deliver to the White House a sample of their petition asking Obama to stop the deportation of students like them. A uniformed Secret Service agent declined to accept the envelope.

On Saturday morning, they will walk the last four miles from Alexandria to the White House.

Organizers of the rally say that "dozens" of protesters who are citizens will commit civil disobedience and risk arrest to call attention to the cause.

That's a step too far for the undocumented trekkers from Miami.

"We don't want to do anything to make us seem radical," Pacheco says. "We want to show our love and all our passion and our desire to stay in the country."

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