Undocumented Students Walk the "Trail of Dreams"
Students march 1,500 miles to support the DREAM Act and immigration rights.
By Cindy Long
Felipe Matos, 24, teaches English to young students in Miami. When he asked his class one day who had been told that they would never make it to college, every hand went up. The students were only in first grade, and Matos was appalled that they were already so discouraged about their futures, but he wasn't surprised. The students were also mostly undocumented immigrants, brought to the United States by their parents.
Matos understands their circumstances. He's also undocumented.
Born to a single mother in the slums of Brazil, he was sent to the United States at age 14 so that he could have a chance at a better life. He worked hard, and graduated fourth in his high school class of 500. With dreams of becoming a teacher, he was accepted at top universities, but was barred from receiving financial aid and couldn't afford to go.
Instead, he attends Miami Dade Community College, where he studies economics and is ranked one of the top 20 college students in the United States for academic excellence. Still, he's unable to enter the classroom because of his immigration status.
"My dream is to become a teacher in an inner city high school, so that I can tell students going through the same thing that they can succeed in life, that they are not worthless, but that they are worth a million," he says. "We can’t keep denying young people their dreams."
It was for the dreams of the estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrants who graduate from high school each year, but are unable to go to college, that Matos walked 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, D.C.
He's one of four college students, including Gaby Pacheco, Carlos Roa, and Juan Rodríguez, who left Miami on January 1 in a march they call the "Trail of Dreams."
Brought here as children, the United States is the only country they call home. Even though they have the same dreams as other American children, and have excelled in school, they live in the shadows of society, unable to work and put their years of schooling to use.
Gaby Pacheco, 25, came to the United States from Ecuador when she was seven, and was considered a "gifted student" by her American teachers. She now has three education degrees from Miami Dade College, and dreams of one day becoming a special education teacher, using music therapy as a communication tool to teach autistic children and adults.
She says she marched 1,500 miles from Florida to Washington so she could say to President Obama, "we just want a chance."
Just days after Arizona passed a law allowing the police to stop suspected illegal immigrants and demand proof of citizenship, hundreds of immigrant rights advocates joined the four Miami students -- as well as five other immigrant students who marched 250 miles from New York City -- at the White House on May 1 for the "March for America" rally, asking President Obama to live up to his campaign promise of passing comprehensive immigration reform.
Waving American flags and signs that said "We are ALL Arizona" and "Education, Not Deportation," participants in the rally heard the Trail of Dreamers speak about the importance of the DREAM Act -- a bill now before Congress that would help immigrants brought here as children, and who have grown up in the United States, gain permanent status after six years by going to college or joining the military.
Students from around the country joined in the rally, including a busload of DREAM Act supporters from Harrisonburg, Virginia, organized in their hometown by special education teacher Sandy Mercer.
Mercer collaborates in English classes, focusing on reading and writing, often with ELL students. The stories written by her undocumented students convinced her that they deserve a chance to earn legal residency in the country they call home.
"I support the DREAM Act because as an educator for over 30 years, I understand what happens when students lose hope," Mercer says. "I am not willing to stand by and do nothing and allow the spark I see in these students fade."
Many of her undocumented students have trusted her with their stories, and she has worked tirelessly to help them pursue their educations, including a young man whose parents fled with him and his brother from Guatemala after a gang "tagged" their house, a signal that they planned to kill the two brothers for not agreeing to join the gang.
Now an Honors Society Student, this young man hopes to study astronomy and one day work at NASA, but he never thought it was possible for him to attend college.
"These students have more courage in their little fingers than I will ever have. It takes courage to keep working when one sees little hope for a future," Mercer says. "These are bilingual, talented, motivated, hard-working, family-loving young people in whom our schools and communities have invested so much."
Mercer has told her students about the few scholarships that don't have residency requirements, and that they can attend the local community college, although they must pay out-of-state tuition. She's networked with other Virginia teachers who've helped their students go on to college, and has worked with local financial aid officers to brainstorm ways for students to get money for tuition since they're not eligible for federal loans or grants.
She and her colleagues also continually try to raise funds through members of the community willing to sponsor the students' education. But she's most committed to working for passage of the DREAM Act.
"Anyone who works with students recognizes this legislation needs to be passed now," she says.