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Students Begin Washington Trek for Immigrant Rights

MIAMI – While their fellow college students recovered from the night’s revelry, four South Floridians celebrated the New Year with a more active – and activist – approach.

The group set out Friday to begin a 1,500 mile (2,400 kilometer) journey they are calling the “Trail of Dreams,” from Miami’s historic Freedom Tower to Washington, D.C. The goal is to raise support for legislation that would include a path to citizenship for eligible illegal immigrants.

The four, all immigrants themselves, plan to walk the entire distance, no matter the weather. They expect students and other supporters to join them along the way and plan to arrive in the capital May 1, which has become a day of immigrant rights rallies in recent years.

All are top students at local colleges and campus leaders. Some are now here legally, some are not. All say they are willing to take the risks that come with bringing attention to the plight of students who, like themselves, were brought to the U.S. as children and are now here illegally.

“I’m tired of coming back to school each semester and hearing about another friend who was picked up and deported,” Juan Rodriguez told a group of supporters during a recent gathering.

Rodriguez, president of the student government at Miami Dade College’s InterAmerican Campus, and the others say they were inspired by the migrant farm workers who walked the length of California in the 1970s, and by the civil rights marches of the 1960s.

On a recent morning this past December, the group led a practice walk under pelting rain from downtown to a church in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood. Also in attendance was a group of immigrants from the farm community of Homestead, south of Miami, which planned to begin a fast to bring attention to immigration reform.

They, like Rodriguez, believe writing letters and calling politicians is not enough. Rodriguez noted that U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, recently introduced an immigration bill in Congress but that such bills have been introduced many times before.

He and the others want comprehensive immigration reform, meaning a path to citizenship for qualified immigrants here illegally as well as improvements in border security that respect immigrant communities. They are also calling on President Barack Obama to halt the routine detention and deportation of illegal immigrants who have children and spouses who are U.S. citizens. And they want him to halt the deportation of youths brought to the U.S. as children, who are now here illegally but want to attend college or enter the military in exchange for the chance of a green card through a so-called “Dream Act.”

Rodriguez’s family brought him to Florida on a tourist visa from Colombia when Rodriguez was 6 because his father feared the surge in kidnappings in their homeland. He remembers his father selling water on the side of the road during their early months in South Florida and living in a cramped apartment with 12 relatives, nearly all of whom have since been deported.

“I saw what my family was doing for me, and I thought it was my job to do the best I could in school,” he said.

He graduated fourth in his high school’s senior class. He would have been valedictorian, but his grades dropped slightly after he realized that even with top honors, advance placement classes and countless hours of community service, the best he could hope for was a job as a gardener. Even if he could scrape together money for a state college, few would hire him because he lacked a social security number or work visa.

“You live your life with one idea of what you think you can be, what it is to live in this country, and you wake up one morning and realize my reality is that I can only be a janitor,” he said of that period when he briefly contemplated suicide.

Rodriguez said his life turned around when he started volunteering on behalf of several students facing deportation. He said he took three-hour bus rides from South Miami to downtown to help them by passing out flyers and organizing rallies in hopes that one day someone would aid him.

Rodriguez’s stepmother eventually helped him become a U.S. resident last year. Now he is studying to become an engineer.

The others in the group have similar stories. Carlos Roa, 22, Felipe Matos, 23, and Gabby Pacheco, 24, all were brought to the U.S. as young children, excelled in school and have advocated on behalf of immigrant teens. Pacheco is from Ecuador, Roa is from Venezuela and Matos is from Brazil.

A recreational vehicle will follow them to ensure they have shelter at night and a bathroom in remote locations, Rodriguez said. The nonprofit Florida Immigrant Coalition is helping with logistics.

Still, Cheryl Little, executive director of the nonprofit Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which is providing them legal counsel, said she is worried about their safety.

“These wonderful students believe so much in the dream – in the American dream,” she said. “They really believe they can make a difference and are willing to put their lives on the line, but they are going to be walking through some very unfriendly places for immigrants.”

Rodriguez said after years of keeping his struggles to himself, he recently got up the nerve to talk about them with his mother, who stayed behind in Colombia.

“Now I’m trying to convince her not to come. If you don’t have to, then maybe you shouldn’t leave. There’s value in staying in your country and helping to improve it,” he said.

He paused, then answered the question that hung in the air.

“I think sometimes I should go back to Colombia and try to help there,” he said. “But it’s not my country anymore. This is my home. This is where I can help.”

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