WASHINGTON – Just days after arriving in the Washington, D.C., area, the “Dreamwalkers” found themselves exhausted one early May evening after a series of public events and news media interviews that publicized their cross-country odyssey for immigration reform. For the Dreamwalkers, four undocumented college students—Carlos Roa, Gaby Pacheco, Felipe Matos, and Juan Rodriguez—the end of a 1,500-mile trek north to Washington from Miami was just the beginning, a chance to reflect and ask what’s next.
“Arizona,” said 22-year-old Roa allowing only a hint of trepidation in his voice. With only the support of people who joined their cause along the journey, the “Dreamwalkers,” as they are called, are planning to make their way to the state that recently passed one of the nation’s toughest immigration measures.
“The trail is not over. We still have more to go,” Pacheco said to a nationwide audience via a live video stream at George Washington University last week. “We don’t know what’s going to happen but that is why we need you guys to stand up,” calling it the “civil rights issue of the 21st century.”
Pacheco is hoping to summon what scholars have dubbed “the sleeping giant”—the millions of American Latinos who can use their vote to demote and promote.
In the 2008 presidential election, Hispanics helped color red states blue for President Obama by voting 2-to-1 for the Democratic candidate, according to reports by the Pew Hispanic center.
Young Latinos have become increasingly engaged, having seen their friends, families and communities affected by immigration laws and enforcement measures. Nearly 60 percent of Hispanics are worried someone they know will be deported and overwhelmingly believe local police should not be involved in identifying undocumented immigrants.
“All of us came onto the trail of dreams because of the desperate situation our lives were in and the devastation we saw in the lives of so many people we care about,” said Rodriguez, who acquired his residency recently after applying for political asylum. “We wanted to put a face on the issues of immigration reform.”
The four students began their journey with nothing but the heartache of unfulfilled potential, they said. All of them were brought to the U.S. as children and graduated from American high schools, but the realities of their immigration status emerged in college. Without legal work permits, neither of them can pursue their preferred professional careers.
Pacheco, who is originally from Ecuador, has been using a student visa to stay in the country on the condition that she continue taking classes. Three degrees later, she is running out of money paying out-of-state tuition. Her parents are currently in deportation proceedings.
Passing the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide a path to legalization for undocumented students, would be the trophy of their marathon but the bill has failed to gain sufficient support on Capitol Hill.
Although major Latino and civil rights organizations support the measure, only recently have advocates come together to put pressure on their congressional representatives.
Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said they are convening stakeholders this month for an organizing meeting to build solidarity around the issue.
A number of youth organizations, like Students Working for Equal Rights, which Pacheco founded, have launched resource Web sites to spread information and galvanize youth. It was the Washington, DC-based New Latino Movement, a network of civically-engaged Latino professionals, that co-hosted the “watch party” that featured the students along with a Latino fraternity, evidence of a growing pro-immigrant force.
“This walk meant our transformation; it changed the way I feel toward being undocumented,” said Daniela Hidalgo, a Baruch College graduate who was inspired by the Florida students to walk from New York City to the nation’s capital. “I was feeling down and worried, but there was this amazing energy and emotional reconstruction during the walk. Everything that had been destroyed by the DREAM Act not passing was rebuilt with each step.”
Hidalgo, who worked with the New York State Youth Leadership Council to plan the trip, said her interactions with people on the trail convinced her that anti-immigrant fervor can be quelled by good information and civil discourse.
The Migrant Policy institute, a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank, estimates that 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high schools each year, with about 5 percent of them pursuing higher education.
During the George Washington University event, a bone-tired Roa was transfixed while a projector flipped through a Flickr album of their walk, which started on Jan. 1, capturing moments that were just returning to his consciousness.
“I remember that,” Roa said solemnly, pointing to pictures of the four facing a gathering of Ku Klux Klan members in a Georgia town. “That was an interesting day.”
Few moments of their trip proved uninteresting. Meeting with legislators and citizens in various municipalities, Matos said in one instance he was approached by a man who told him he wasn’t completely human. Yet all along the way strangers sustained them with material donations and the motivation to continue, they said.
“This is a not a fight for papers. This is a fight for justice, this is a fight for dignity,” said Matos, who was a student body president at Miami-Dade college and was sent from Brazil at the behest of his ailing mother as a pre-teen. “This is more than a policy or legislation; this is about human beings.”
Polls continue to show that a majority of Americans approve of strict immigration enforcement like Arizona’s S.B. 1070, and the issue is moving up the ranks as a national priority. The debate has been recharged on all fronts of the political spectrum where most agree that immigration overhaul is needed but spar on the details.
“We only had our feet and that’s all we had,” Matos said, who added that he believes they’ve earned their citizenship after living their lives and in their words contributing to society with education. “If we don’t unite, we are going to lose.”