Defying Cops and Klan, Immigrants Trek 1,500 Miles to Washington

Four undocumented students journey from Miami to Washington seeking reform.

January 22, 2010, 1:59 PM

WASHINGTON, April 30, 2010— -- When Gaby Pacheco, an undocumented immigrant, came face to face with members of the Ku Klux Klan in February, she didn't even flinch.

Flanked by three fellow undocumented South Florida college students, Pacheco gritted her teeth and kept putting one foot in front of the other.

Some of the Klansmen yelled epithets as the students walked a stretch of road outside Nahunta, Ga., calling them "Mexican dogs" and "homeless prostitutes," and threatening to "eradicate" Latinos from the U.S., she said.

But Pacheco and her friends, who embarked Jan. 1 on a 1,500-mile journey on foot from Miami, Fla., to Washington, D.C., said slander would not distract them from their goal: immigration reform that might bring them U.S. citizenship.

The students' so-called "Trail of Dreams," which took them through five politically conservative states, ended in the nation's capital earlier this week -- just in time for them to add their voices to the festering national debate over immigration. The four are expected to take part in a May Day immigration protest in Washington tomorrow.

"We walked 15 to 18 miles a day, six days a week, for four months to step up," said Carlos Roa, 22, from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where the activists gathered Thursday.

"We want to put a face to the numbers" of illegal immigrants, Pacheco said. The national debate had been rekindled by Arizona's new state immigration law.

Pacheco, Roa, Felipe Matos, 23, and Juan Rodriguez, 20, say they understand the need for states like Arizona to secure the their borders -- but not at the expense of the lives of the varied immigrants who live here.

Thousands of immigrants, including Pacheco, Roa and Matos, have been in the U.S. illegally for most of their lives after their parents brought them here as children. The U.S. is the only country they've ever known, they say.

Theirs is a predicament they hope will convince lawmakers, who have been at loggerheads over immigration reform in recent months, to act. As undocumented immigrants, they are not eligible for drivers licenses, to attend college, or work legally -- and they face the constant threat of deportation.

The four were greeted Thursday on the steps of the U.S. House by three Republican members of Florida's congressional delegation – Reps. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and Mario Diaz-Balart.

"These students are Americans," said Mario Diaz-Balart. "They don't know any other place. We have to deal with that reality... They never made any decision to break the law, and to punish them for a decision that an adult may have made is against everything that we stand for as a country."

Diaz-Balart and his brother, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, are sponsors of the DREAM Act, which would provide relief for the "dreamers" and others who can prove they were brought here at a young age, have completed schooling and have no criminal records.

The measure failed to pass in 2007 when part of a broader reform effort. It has not been brought to the floor of either the House or Senate since.

It's also part of several new comprehensive immigration reform proposals, including one by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and a draft framework by Sens. Chuck Schumer and Lindsey Graham. So far, however, those proposals have not been widely considered by Congress.

Schumer said Thursday that Senate Democrats are prepared to introduce their own immigration reform proposal and that "we can and should pass something" -- but no details on when.

President Obama has also called for reform, most recently in the wake of the Arizona immigration law, but has not committed to getting a deal done this year.

"We're here and we're still waiting to do everything we can to get that meeting with President Obama," Rodriguez said. "The decision [of whether to take up immigration reform] really determines the rest of our lives."

Immigration Officials Aware of Walkers but Focus on 'Criminal Aliens'

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesman Brandon Alvarez-Montgomery told ABC News the agency is aware of the students and "respects the rights of individuals to advocate for reform of our nation's immigration laws."

He said ICE will "continue to investigate and review cases that meet our priorities and further our mission to protect the United States from immigration violators that are threats to our national security and public safety."

In October, ICE director John Morton told ABC News the agency pursues stringent enforcement programs against all illegal immigrants, but places the highest priority on "criminal aliens," or those immigrants with criminal convictions.

Morton described individuals like Matos, Roa and Pacheo -- who were brought to the U.S. illegally as minors and have grown up here -- as "very tough cases, very hard cases" that involve sensitive and compelling circumstances to be addressed by ICE on a "case by case basis… [until we] come up with something that's a little more across-the-board thoughtful."

In the most recent ABC News poll on immigration, 61 percent of respondents said they would support a program giving illegal immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements. Thirty-five percent said they oppose such a plan. Support crossed party lines: Republicans and conservatives supported this idea, by 59 and 56 percent, respectively.

The "Trail of Dreams" students say their lives do not hinge on legalization and that they will continue to follow their aspirations as best they can: Roa says he wants to be an architecht, Rodriguez a sociologist, Matos a high school teacher, and Pacheo a music therapist who works with autistic kids.

They'll carry those dreams with them tomorrow when they converge on the National Mall.

"May 1 is only the beginning," said Matos. "We're still trying to meet with President Obama. We walked 1,500 miles to deliver him a message: His promise to change hasn't come."