Four slightly road-weary 20-somethings arrived in Alexandria Monday afternoon, close to 1,500 miles from home but just 10 miles shy of their final destination. Their journey, which began January 1, would halt for the night in Arlandria.
In reality, though, the students’ march from their Miami homes to the nation’s capital began long ago when they emigrated to the United States with their families and the years they have spent as undocumented residents in this country.
At the last stop on their “Trail of Dreams” from south Florida to the White House an effort to highlight the need for what they feel is critical immigration reform Gaby Pacheco, Carlos Roa, Felipe Matos and Juan Rodriguez received a hero’s welcome in the city neighborhood, also called Chirilagua, with a sizable Latin American immigrant base.
By the time they arrived at the headquarters of Tenants and Workers United just after 5:30 p.m., more than 200 people had assembled in the light rain to greet the student crusaders and the dozen or so other people walking at their side.
“This is amazing, this is beautiful,” said Matos, 24, of the scene. “Just now a woman came and hugged us and said, Thank you for fighting for my children. Please let everybody know that all we want is the same thing that every other mother and father wants.’
“It’s a common dream that all of us share.”
Increasingly, their vision for the future appeared a pipe dream. Calls from friends held in detention centers persisted. There were knocks on the door from immigration officials.
The issue couldn’t wait any longer. They began the trek to Washington with the hope that President Barack Obama takes action “to stop detentions and deportations of students for a period of two years and halt removal proceedings for individuals with immediate family members who are U.S. citizens,” they said.
“We’re just normal students from Miami that felt that we needed to do something for our families and our community,” Pacheco said.
Judging by the reception Monday night, it’s a community without borders and the four Floridians served as the embodiment of stories playing out in Northern Virginia, too.
Milenka Cornel, a Bolivian immigrant who has since become a U.S. citizen and now works with the Bolivian community in Arlington, said it is a “big deal” for undocumented people living in the area.
“I think this means hope, it gives the community a sense of hope for their children that there’s a future out there,” Cornel said.
All four of the Florida students grew up as undocumented immigrants Rodriguez became an official U.S. resident last year and now, even after successful high school careers, struggle to fulfill the dreams they were told their hard work would earn them.
Pacheca said what she remembered most vividly about the day Rodriguez learned he was finally an American citizen was the irony in the letter that said, “Welcome to the United States of America.”
“It was quite sad because his existence had not been acknowledged until that point,” she said.
Because of their immigration status, the students said they could not get loans for college, let alone scholarships or grants because they lacked a Social Security number. The situation relegated them to community college instead of the top-flight colleges that had accepted them.
They put their lives on hold accumulating blisters and several pairs of worn out shoes on their way to Washington because they were already on hold in many ways, they said.
“The reason why we decided to walk is that we had no other choices,” Roa said. “Our lives were literally unbearable I was evicted, I had no job, I could barely go to school, I could barely provide day-to-day just because I didn’t have a nine-digit number to get a job.
“I was stuck.”
Along the way they’ve come across stories similar to their own, which only added to the weight of each northbound step.
“Every stop we’ve made we’ve heard heartbreaking stories of students that couldn’t go to college, children that were separated from their parents,” Matos said. “More than the physical portion of it, it was really emotional because this is our life, this is our issue. We go through this every day.”
Their story and mission has swayed many would-be detractors, according to the students. They said in many cases people have misplaced preconceptions about who they are and how they live.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions out there about undocumented immigrants,” Roa said, “We want to give back so much to society.”