When partners Juan Rodriguez and Felipe Matos arrive at the White House Saturday at 2 p.m., it will mark the realization of a dream they completed one step at a time, literally.
The couple forms one half of a quartet of college students who set out on January 1 to walk from Miami to Washington, D.C., in order to raise awareness about immigrants nationwide who call this nation home but have no path to citizenship.
“It’s unbelievable!” says Rodriguez, reflecting on the near completion of their journey. “It’s hard to imagine that we’ve walked so far, especially seeing a map and knowing that I recognize those communities now and can connect those cities with the faces of people who have been working so hard on immigration reform.”
In fact, what they refer to as the Trail of Dreams walk has fed off the generosity of strangers united in a cause.
The trip started with an $8,000 grant from the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition, which allowed them to get an RV for their clothes, gear, and emergency provisions. But since then, Rodriguez said, their meals and shelter have come entirely from the communities they visited on the road to Washington.
“They would open their homes, cook for us, people would stop on the street to give us gloves, give us scarves,” he said, adding that local churches also took up collections. “It’s been incredible.”
The two men, who have been together about two years, both came to the states in their youth — Rodriguez from Colombia and Matos from Brazil. They met while working together at Citizens Working for Equal Rights, a progressive organization that focuses on immigration issues and more generally teaching people about different forms of oppression.
But despite their commitment to each other and a common purpose, the law now views them differently. Rodriquez, 20, was sponsored by his stepmother and finally achieved permanent residency last year after living in the United States for 13 years. But Matos, who is 24 and came to the States when he was 14, is technically an undocumented immigrant with no immediate family members eligible to sponsor him. Even if they married, Rodriguez could not sponsor Matos for residency because federal law does not recognize same-sex partners as spouses.
An estimated 10 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the U.S., but Matos’s case represents the predicament of a large number of individuals who come to the states as minors but have no way of becoming legal residents.
Matos and Rodriguez, along with their walking partners Gaby Pacheco, 25, from Ecuador, and Carlos Roa, 22, from Venezuela, have dedicated their march to the Dream Act, a bipartisan bill that would give people like Matos the chance to enlist in the military or attend college and eventually obtain citizenship.
journey “like it was yesterday.”
Rodriguez had recently returned
to Florida from an immigration conference in New York where attendees
had birthed the idea of re-creating a type of “underground railroad” for
immigrants to travel town to town, liberating each other through their
stories until they reached Washington where they would petition
lawmakers to complete that liberation.
When Matos told Rodriguez
the news that a Florida detention center was expanding so it could house
more undocumented immigrants, Rodriquez put on his shoes right then and
said, “I’m going to walk.”
“Walk where?” responded Matos, who
was doing his psychology homework at the time.
Rodriguez said as he shared with Matos the vision from the conference.
was so distraught, he actually walked out the door to begin his journey
on the spot. But Matos reached him by cell and said, “Wouldn’t it be
beautiful to start the walk on January 1 — a new decade, a new beginning
when immigrants can finally tell their own stories?”
agreed, so the two set out at the dawn of 2010 with their friends
Pacheco and Roa.
Four months and 1,500 miles later, the four will
walk the final leg of their journey, starting around 9 a.m. Saturday
in Alexandria, Va., and arriving around 2 p.m. in Lafayette Park in
front of the White House.
They will be joined by anywhere from
5,000 to 10,000 activists from 25 different states as they deliver about
35,000 petitions urging President Barack Obama to sign an executive
order staying the deportations of students and the separation of
Matos, who is at risk of being detained and deported to
Brazil, says he and Rodriguez have made no promises to each other except
to fight to stay at one another's side.
“We love each other so much that we were
willing to walk all this way to fight to stay together,” he says.