Walking 1,500 miles to be ‘legal’

We conducted some powerful interviews today as part of our pilot episode for a new afternoon news program at L.A. Public Media.

The interviews were with Felipe Matos, 23, and Carlos Roa, 22. The two young men were part of a group of four young community college students who are walking from Miami all the way to Washington, D.C. Three out of the four are undocumented – having been brought to the U.S. when they were little kids, without any say in the matter, by their parents.

Now they are stuck. They can’t work, they can’t go to college in 40 out of the 50 states in the U.S. without paying astronomical tuition rates reserved for foreign students, and they also can’t get any student loans to help pay for a university education.

The four students’ journey on-foot is being called The Trail of Dreams, after The Dream Act – a bill that would allow undocumented immigrant kids to become legal residents (after meeting fairly strict conditions) and to finally be able to go to school and work, and become fully contributing members of American society.

Ask the young 20-somethings why they don’t simply go back to the countries from which they emigrated, and they will tell you that they are Americans – having grown up here since they were toddlers, America is all they know and it’s their home. English is their strongest language, they are fully assimilated into the culture, and they wouldn’t know how to make a life for themselves in a foreign land. Young kids stuck in illegal immigration limbo say this time and time again – interview after interview.

The interview we conducted today with Carlos Roa and Felipe Matos was so powerful for all of us involved, that it literally took our breath away. The two young men talked about walking through areas of the deep South – in Georgia, where they encountered a KKK rally against illegal immigration. What could have turned into an ugly incident transformed into an affirmative one – as local NAACP members invited the four walkers to join them in a counter-rally – linking their struggle to the Civil Rights Movement.

Felipe Matos told me of visiting a conservative protestant church in Columbus, Georgia, where the preacher had made anti-immigrant comments. By the time the four walkers had finished speaking about their personal struggles, the preacher was asking how his congregation can help get the Dream Act passed.

The four walkers also told us of how many people have galvanized behind their actions. For example, when they first started their journey, they didn’t have the proper shoes – and walking 18 miles a day left them with painful blisters. Supporters through a campaign to raise money and soon the walkers were able to purchase hiking boots.

They also told of tragic stories they’ve gathered during their visits to many communities along their trail. One story was of a mother driving her children to school, pulled over for a broken taillight, and sent for deportation when the authorities discovered she was undocumented. Another was of a man beaten so severely in a hate crime attack that he was left in a coma – and it seemed for a time that he might be deported while in a coma.

The students said they’re realizing that a lot of people they’ve met along their journey don’t really understand what it means to be an illegal immigrant in the U.S. – what the struggle is, and who the people are. The four say they are working to change that just by telling their own stories – and that change is happening.

This is one of the most compelling stories I have run into in my 10 years of journalism.

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