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Students risk dreams -- and deportation -- in walk for recognition

By Elizabeth M. Nunez, CNN
  • Some kids brought or sent to U.S. come close to American Dream, only to face deportation
  • Dream Act would let those who arrived in U.S. before 16 to obtain residency
  • About 65,000 undocumented teens graduate from high school each year
  • Opponents view act as way to grant amnesty to illegal aliens

Editor's note: Elizabeth M. Nunez is a production assistant with CNN's "In America."

(CNN) -- When he first arrived in the United States, 14-year-old Felipe Matos liked to go to the supermarket after school just to walk the aisles.

"There was so much food! I would just look at the milk -- there's like 50 types of milk!"

Miami, Florida, was a world apart from the poor neighborhood in Brazil where he was raised by a single mother and older sister. Now 24, he recalls "lacking everything" at home in Duque de Caxias, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro.

There was no running toilet, and most of the time not enough food to go around. "I would be the only one at home allowed to drink a cup of milk," he says.

When his mother fell ill and could no longer work as a maid to support her family, she sent Felipe to Florida to live with a sister.

"It was one of the saddest days of my life. I was so scared. I got in the plane crying a lot and people didn't know what was happening because I only spoke Portuguese."

Felipe's story is like that of many children and teenagers who are brought or sent to the United States. Their families hope to escape hardship, persecution or poverty. The children study hard and excel in school.

Then, just as the dream of getting a college education or a job is within grasp, they learn that they face deportation. As undocumented adults, they can attend college but are ineligible for financial aid. They must pay the steep tuition costs charged to foreign students.

The stellar future of a promising student becomes the uncertain one of an undocumented immigrant.

The greatest opportunity for young people like Felipe lies in the passage of the federal Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, also known as the Dream Act. In a 2009 report, The College Board estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate each year from high school. The legislation would enable those who arrived in the United States before 16 and have lived here at least five consecutive years to obtain residency.

Felipe entered the country on a tourist visa and enrolled in middle school.

"My sister said to me, 'This is a country of opportunities. If you work hard, you will make it. Our mother worked hard so the only thing I ask is that you do well in school and make her proud.' And that's what I did."

He spoke no English and stayed up nights translating textbooks and memorizing the lessons. He wrote plays that won regional competitions and graduated with honors.

But high school graduation seemed to signal the end of the road. Without money for tuition and ineligible for financial aid, he got a job and started saving for college. When a friend told him about Miami-Dade College's honors program, he applied and was able to afford tuition with a scholarship and help from his family.

By the time he graduated with an associate degree in international affairs, Felipe had been elected student government president and was recognized as one of 20 New Century Scholars nationwide. He got accepted to American University, Tulane, Duke and Florida International University, but could attend none without financial aid.

St. Thomas University, a Catholic college in Miami, awarded him a scholarship.

He hoped to become a teacher "because I believe that the way out of poverty is getting an education." But that dream ended when he learned he would need a Social Security number to teach. He then chose to study law but discovered his undocumented status would prevent him from taking the bar exam.

"I asked them, 'tell me something that I can study so that I can have a degree.' I chose economics so that I can at least work in development."

One of many dreams

At Miami-Dade, Felipe had learned he was not alone in his plight. He joined Students Working for Equal Rights and met its founder, Gaby Pacheco.

Pacheco came to the U.S. from Ecuador at 7. With three degrees in education, the 25-year-old wants to teach autistic children. But first she must resolve her undocumented status.

Juan Rodriguez is a 20-year-old Colombian who after 13 years in the U.S. became a resident in 2008. Carlos Roa, 22, was a toddler when his sister brought him from Venezuela. He harbored hopes of joining the military.

With these three members of the student activist group, Felipe joined in demonstrating against the detention of classmates and friends. But with little attention from authorities, they decided to stop waiting and start walking -- all the way to Capitol Hill -- to draw attention to their situation. They began the 1,500-mile journey from Miami on January 1.

Traveling in an unmarked RV donated by the Florida Immigration Coalition, the four get out every day to walk from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

They stop to speak about discrimination but mostly they want to hear others' stories. At times, more than 100 people have joined them in the walk. They've traversed Ku Klux Klan territory, sat with immigrant day laborers, received donations, food, places to stay and support in the unlikeliest places.

Follow their journey at

Making friends along the way

In South Carolina, they were surprised by the unexpected generosity of an African-American woman who was cleaning a church where they stopped to rest.

"She drove to meet us and gave us five bucks," Felipe recalls. "That's how we've been paying for everything. This is what makes me get up and put on my shoes every morning."

For the dreamers, as they call themselves, the walk gives voice to those who, out of fear, can not speak out -- such as the 18-year-old student from Peru who was detained by immigration officials on Friday as she waited for the tri-rail train to go to Miami-Dade College.

"Hardly a week or two goes by that we don't hear one of our students got picked up by immigration," says Eduardo Padron, president of Miami-Dade College, which has an enrollment of about 175,000 students.

"Many of these young people are the best students in their classes -- valedictorians -- and when they are ready to go to college they cannot afford it," Padron says.

The Dream Act was first introduced in 2009. Within the Comprehensive Immigration Reform package, the provisions to give students a path to residency are perceived as the least contentious. But many opponents of the act still view it as nothing but a first step in granting amnesty to illegal aliens.

Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, says part of the opposition is focused on the fact that the proposed law might benefit more than the young adults who came to this country as children.

Camarota, who favors stronger immigration laws, says there is also the fundamental question of fairness to those who come to the U.S. legally to study.

"To some, it strikes them as unfair that illegals will get this subsidy when they shouldn't be here in the first place," he said.

Felipe says making his undocumented status public and walking to D.C. was not a question but an imperative.

"We could either sit and be quiet in Miami and wait for them to come and get us or we could raise up our voice so that the abuses can stop."

As the foursome crossed into North Carolina last weekend, their determination was fueled by the people they met along the way.

"We set out not only to change the hearts and minds but also to motivate our peers and other undocumented people to come out and not to be afraid anymore," Felipe says. "But something funny happened. They motivate us more than we motivate them."