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

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 1, 2010; C01

Gaby Pacheco and Felipe Matos, a couple of high-achieving college students from Miami, stand dumbfounded at the corner of 14th and N streets NW.

The plastic side window of their road-weary Ford RV has been slid wide open. It was closed when they parked it at midday a few hours before. Missing from inside: five laptops, a GPS unit, cellphone chargers.

"They disconnected us from the world," Matos says, sounding awed at the surgical daylight work of unknown D.C. smash-and-grabbers this past Tuesday.

It's not the Washington welcome they imagined on Jan. 1 when they began their four-month, 1,500-mile odyssey to deliver a message to President Obama and fire up the next phase of the immigration reform movement.

Matos, Pacheco and two fellow students on leave from Miami Dade College have walked the entire way. The Trail of Dreams, they call it. The RV is their support vehicle. The computers were how they documented their journey on Facebook and Twitter, gathered 30,000 signatures to bring to the president and marshaled support and shelter along the way.

Pacheco uses her dying cellphone to call the police. The dispatcher asks her name. She hesitates. She can't help it. She's reflexively furtive, even after years of training herself to embrace, even proclaim, her identity and peculiar status.

The irony of the moment makes her smile. An illegal immigrant calling the police.

"Imagine if we were in Arizona now," Matos says. "We wouldn't be calling because we'd be so scared."

"But this is a 'Secure Community,' " Pacheco reminds him, referring to the federal program being implemented in local jurisdictions to streamline the process of deporting illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes.

Mixed with their caution is an odd eagerness for their encounter with law enforcement. An hour passes and no officers come, so the group drives the RV to the police station on V Street NW. The station has a poster on the wall in Spanish, urging participation in the 2010 Census.

"We're students and we're undocumented," Pacheco tells the desk officer.

"I understand totally," he says with polite disinterest, then takes detailed notes on the theft.

* * *

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."

* * *

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.

* * *

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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