Four students who were brought to the United States by their families when they were young and are still undocumented are walking 1,500 miles from their homes in Miami, Fla. to Washington, D.C., to ask for immigration reform. Carlos Roa, 22, is one of the four Trail of Dreams walkers who are calling for the implementation of The Dream Act, federal legislation that would give undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children a pathway to citizenship after completing college. It would also give them access to private loans, to help pay for their university education. Carlos arrived in the United States at the age of 2 and has been living here for 20 years without documents. He spoke with NAM editor Carolyn Goossen.
How did you and your family come to live in the United States?
My grandfather was living in New York. He was a banquet hall manager at the New York Hilton and was very successful. When he got sick, my father, who was an only child, decided to come to the United States from Venezuela to take care of him.
My grandfather petitioned for my father to get citizenship during this visit, but then my grandfather passed away. My father inherited some money, property and stocks from his father, so he decided to stay. He really wanted his children to be educated here, so he brought my mother, my older sister and myself to the United States from Caracas, Venezuela. I was 2 years old.
Were your parents able to work here?
In Venezuela, my father worked for the Polar Beer Company, and my mother was a housewife. When he came here, he decided to invest his inheritance to open a business in Miami. He wanted to sell industrial products to Venezuela, but his business was unsuccessful, and my dad had to close it down. That’s when things went downhill for us.
My little sister was born, and my mother developed breast cancer, and we started struggling financially. We were evicted time after time.
My father was unable to fix his status. He could never get a steady job, or a good job, because he didn’t have any papers. In those days, he at least had a license, but then after 9-11, things got even worse in the state of Florida for immigrants and they changed the law regarding licenses. When my father’s license expired he was not allowed to renew it because of his status.
What was it like being an undocumented student?
I always knew I was undocumented, but I didn’t really understand what it meant until high school. When my older sister and I got to high school we would talk about our status a lot with our parents. We’d always be on my father’s case, and ask him, what the hell are we going to do after high school? When are we getting our papers?
At the same time, my mother’s cancer was getting worse, and we were still dealing with evictions, and the daily struggles of poverty.
Our friends were getting drivers licenses, looking forward to life after high school. And we were evading the simplest questions like, what are you going to do after high school?
What was the hardest part of high school for you?
Senior year was the most depressing year. I remember just working as many odd jobs as I could, trying to help out the family.
I didn’t dare go to a college counselor to ask about the possibility of college, because I didn’t want them know about my status. I remember my assistant principal asking me at graduation ‘Carlos, what are you going to do after high school?’ I remember lying, saying, ‘I’m going to join the air force,’ even when I knew I couldn’t do that.
We didn’t know at that time that we had access to community college… we just assumed that college was not open to us.
I managed to graduate with a 3.0, but I was really down.
My mom passed away in 2006. I worked in construction for a while, and then I lost that job. That’s when I said, enough is enough, I need to do something, and I wrote a letter explaining my situation and what I wanted to do with my life, and I distributed it to different organizations across the nation-- news outlets, editors, everybody you could imagine. That’s how I got connected to Students Working for Equal Rights (SWER). Since that time, I’ve been fighting for the Dream Act and pro-migrant legislation.
What made you decide to “come out” as undocumented at that time?
I don’t know from where I got the will or the courage to write that letter and send it out, but I think a lot of it came from my mother. She was a very strong woman. And I had so much frustration and anger. I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Getting involved in SWER, I met other students in my same situation for the first time. Some of them were going to college, and I was in complete shock. I asked them, how did you get into school if you are undocumented? They helped me understand the system better so I was able to enroll in Miami Dade College in January 2009.
How would the Dream Act help you achieve your goals?
My goal in life is to become an architect. But I’m only taking a couple of classes per semester because I’m paying out-of-state tuition, even thought I’ve been living here in Florida for 20 years. I can’t work. I can’t get most scholarships. And I can’t drive.
If the Dream Act were to pass this year, it would definitely make my life a whole lot easier. I would be able not only to provide for my family better in the short term, but it would help me realize my dream of becoming an architect. I would finally be able to work, drive, and maybe travel.
What has been the most exciting part of being on the Trail of Dreams?
The most exciting part so far has been walking with hundreds of people who support our cause. In small little towns, like Stewart, Fla., we had a congregation of a Catholic Church walk with us. It was freezing cold and raining, and still 50 people walked with us. We also had over 50 day laborers walk with us in Jupiter, Fla. That was a very humbling experience because of all the people that are affected when it comes to immigration, they are the ones who are the worst off. I remember speaking to a couple of them, and they talked about not having work for two months and trying to provide for their families.
And what about the most frightening moment?
The worst moment was probably when we went to Nahunta, Ga. The Ku Klux Klan was having a rally and their protest was about stopping the invasion of illegals, stopping sex offenders and anger over not having prayers in schools. We went there in order to counter-demonstrate, alongside the NAACP. Living in Miami, I had never seen the Klan out in public like that. It must have been 50-100 people in their rally, and our side was smaller then theirs. We were there confronting our worst fears. There was really heavy police presence. [So] we were separated from each other.
The other experience was going to [Gwinett County] Sheriff Butch Conway’s office. He likes to refer to undocumented people as illegal aliens and always mentions how the 287(g) programs [which authorize local law enforcement to enforce immigration law] have been good for the community. We went to show him that the 287(g) program is counter-effective for the entire community because when people are afraid of the police, they will not report crimes. We asked for a meeting, and the sheriff’s office said that the sheriff was too busy. So we walked into the building regardless, even though we were basically risking arrest because it’s a 287(g) area, which means any undocumented immigrants can be arrested by local law enforcement.
Why is being on this Trail of Dreams so important to you?
It’s about liberating ourselves from the fear of being undocumented. That’s been the most rewarding part of being on this walk. Meeting so many people, we finally feel like we are living life. For so long we lived in the shadows, and things were getting worse. We are finally taking control of our own life.