“This is a primer for those ready and sturdy enough to take real action.”Dennis Hiebert, Geez magazine
On January 1, 2010, four immigrant youth leaders (Carlos Roa, Felipe Matos, Juan Rodriguez and myself) embarked on a 1,500 mile walk from Miami, Florida to Washington, D.C. The long-term goal of this arduous journey was to put a human face on the immigration debate and counteract the effect of anti-immigrant portrayals in the mainstream media. The short-term goal was to put pressure on Washington to fix a failed system that has kept millions of undocumented members of our communities and families in the shadows.
We had four requests. The first was for President Obama, through an executive action, to stop the detentions and deportations of students for two years and halt removal proceedings for people with immediate family members who are U.S. citizens. The second was the passage of the DREAM Act (“Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors”) to allow access to higher education. Third, protection of immigrant workers’ rights, and last, the passage of just and humane immigration reform.
At the core of the Trail of Dreams trek was the desire to escalate our activism by publicly sharing stories and struggles, inspiring others to take up similar actions throughout the United States. The goal was to open hearts and change minds in order to create much-needed policy change. Over four months we walked through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, finally arriving in Washington, D.C., on May 1. Each day we walked sixteen to eighteen miles. Every encounter was an opportunity to share our story, to plant a seed.
With the help of hosting communities, we held events where we broke bread and invited people to share their stories, and to organize and fight for their dreams. We were weclcomed by congregations from various faiths, including the Lutherans, Unitarian Universalists, United Methodists, Christ Churchers, Catholics, Baptists and others. We spoke to crowds of white conservatives, conducted a joint event with African-Americans in Georgia, and of course reached out to the Latino base, immigrants and citizens alike. The trek would have not been possible without the support of a small but dedicated group, including a project manager, a logistics coordinator, a driver and an on-site coordinator. Our organization, Students Working for Equal Rights, set up local teams along the route to ensure our safety and well-being.
We faced many challenges. One was blisters, body aches and walking through one of the coldest winters in recent memory. The other was the backlash from anti-immigrant hate groups, including the Klu Klux Klan, which targeted the Trail with a rally in an unsuccessful attempt to intimidate the walkers. Additionally, three of us faced the constant risk of deportation by coming into direct contact with federal immigration authorities.
The Trail of Dreams inspired a sleeping giant, immigrant youth, to take their stories to the streets. It inspired young people to share their dreams publicly, including youth in Illinois who organized “coming-out actions” declaring, “we are undocumented and unafraid.” In Arizona, five immigrant youths sat-in at Senator John McCain’s office, while several solidarity walks took place across the country. The Trail of Dreams caught the eye of both local and national media, with over 300 articles written about the walk and interviews with trekkers on several major networks. The trek inspired a nation of DREAMers and allies to fight for the passage of the DREAM Act, which, while not yet passed into law, remains within reach.
By creating a national support network and taking our demands on the road, we were able to directly challenge racist and anti-immigrant policies. As openly undocumented youth with the legitimacy of a broad-based movement behind us, we were able to meet with sheriffs, police officers, immigration agents and other officials without being detained or deported. We proved that the power of people is stronger than inhumane laws and a broken immigration system.
There is nothing more powerful than letting your heart lead you. If we had listened to all the people who told us this walk was “crazy,” “suicidal,” “not real organizing” or “impossible,” the trek never would have happened. We didn’t let fear paralyze us; we knew that if we opened our hearts to the community, people would listen and respond. We followed our hearts and sparked a movement.
Although one of our goals was to inspire our community, another was to reach out to people who were misguided by the media. We wanted to speak to those who felt that we did not belong. We wanted to share with them our stories and allow them to decide for themselves. After talking with us, many anti-immigrants shifted their position.
We didn’t fight hate with hate but rather with love. When a man told Felipe he was less than human because all he was an “illegal,” Felipe responded, “God bless you.” When a group of young people came to disrupt our walk with a big Confederate flag, we walked with them and shared our stories until they folded the flag and left. When we went to Arizona and met with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, “America’s toughest sheriff” and a tireless crusader against liberal immigration policies, I hugged him. I told him that he was our brother who had gone astray, that he and I were equals, and that our “papers” were in our blood. I touched his heart with my right hand and said that I hoped he would change. He didn’t arrest us, and that day we faced each other as equals.