Illegal Immigrants Make 1,500-Mile March to Washington

Seeking citizenship, student activists ignore risk of detention and deportation.

January 22, 2010, 1:59 PM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26, 2010— -- South Florida college students Felipe Matos, 23, Carlos Roa, 22, and Gaby Pacheo, 25, say their lives as undocumented immigrants have become so "unbearable," they decided it was time to take their stories to the nation's capital...on foot.

The trio has embarked on a four-month, 1,500-mile campaign, walking from Miami to Washington, D.C., to advocate for immigration reform legislation that would give them a path to citizenship.

Matos, Roa and Pacheo say they have been living in the shadows in the U.S. since their parents immigrated with them illegally when they were children, but now they're ready to speak out boldly against the law that could ultimately lead to their detention and deportation.

Their high-profile stunt could make them ripe targets for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"We understand the risks but we also acknowledge that the present is unbearable," Matos, a student at Miami Dade Honors College who was born in Brazil, told ABC News while walking on the outskirts of Orlando, Fla.

"We wanted to tell the world that living in fear – living in the shadows, is very cold… fear kills the human spirit and we felt that our spirits were dying," he said.

The trio's so-called "Trail of Dreams" began Jan. 1, and has already covered more than 250 miles.

Matos and his fellow walkers have drawn crowds of several hundred supporters during their march, which averages 18 miles a day. Along the way, they have been meeting with community groups and calling on state and local officials to share their stories and "put a face" on their cause.

Last week, they met with aides to Florida's two U.S. senators – Republican George LeMieux and Democrat Bill Nelson – and Republican Rep. John Mica.

"Rep. Mica's immigration adviser had a tough stance on immigration," wrote Roa of the meeting on the group's blog. "But we were able to get her to understand that deporting millions is simply unrealistic."

The students are pushing for the so-called pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who pass background checks, meet education requirements and pay necessary fees – particularly youths who were brought here by their parents and want to attend college.

They hope to be in the nation's capital by May 1, which has become a day for immigrant rights rallies in recent years.

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

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., recently introduced comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would give illegal immigrants who have a job, are in school or serve in the U.S. military a chance to "earn legalization" by registering with the government, passing criminal background checks, learning English, and paying taxes and fees. They would then receive a six-year "provisional" visa and later, having met the requirements, would be eligible for a green card.

Such bills have been introduced many times before and failed, most recently in 2007. President Obama has promised to readdress the issue.

"We need change and we need it now," Matos said. "We really believed what Obama said, but we're still waiting. It's a year and we still haven't seen it."

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.