By Matt O’Brien
March 9, 2012
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As they step onto the Golden Gate Bridge on Saturday to begin an eight-month walk across the country, undocumented student activists hope to inject the Dream Act into the heart of the 2012 presidential race.
Empowered by a long-fought campaign for citizenship and disappointed by its crashing 2010 defeat, young illegal immigrants around the country are using a variety of tactics to keep their mission in the election limelight.
Some are stalking Republican front-runner Mitt Romney on the campaign trail, where they were escorted out of a Boston hotel ballroom after shouting “Veto Romney! Not the Dream Act!” during his Super Tuesday speech. Another group is launching a less-confrontational strategy from the Bay Area this weekend.
The team of four — three of them illegal immigrants — will cross by foot through 13 states. They hope to reach the National Mall just days before the November election.
“We’re going through these rural communities in America. We really want to change minds, change hearts,” said Lucas da Silva, 23, whose parents brought him to the United States from Brazil when he was a year old.
The Florida resident’s story is a familiar one in the decadelong campaign for the Dream Act, a bill that would allow the youths to become legal residents if they graduate from college or join the military.
And with the debate over America’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants likely to play a role in the election, da Silva hopes some will hear his side as he walks 10 hours a day, from town to town, talking to anyone who will listen.
When he was a teenager, da Silva woke up one morning, rushed into his parents’ bedroom and eagerly told them he was ready to get his driver’s permit. They looked at each other before breaking the news.
“I had grown up thinking I was completely American, and then all of a sudden my parents told me I wasn’t,” he said.
Romney has pledged to veto the Dream Act if it falls on his desk, while President Barack Obama has endorsed it but was unable to persuade a Democrat-led Congress to pass it just before Republicans took control. The House of Representatives passed the legislation in December 2010 but it fell short of the 60 votes it needed in the Senate.
“Obviously, Mitt Romney is taking more of a tough stance on immigration than some of his opponents have taken. It’s going to be difficult for certain Latinos to cast that vote” for him, said Hector Barajas, a Sacramento political consultant whom Romney tapped for his national Hispanic Steering Committee. Polls show about 90 percent of the Latino electorate, a critical voting bloc, supports the Dream Act.
Barajas disagrees with Romney on the Dream Act, but says Democrats have done little to advance the students’ cause and he echoes other GOP Latino activists who are trying to put the president on the immigration defensive. Latinos are frustrated, he said, by the Obama administration’s record-high deportations that have only recently begun to abate.
“They use these kids — this is the most heartbreaking thing — is they use these kids as their own little political tool,” Barajas said.
One solution, said Barajas, is for more of the students to share their stories so that “people see you as kids, people can see you as students, and people can see you as professionals.”
Da Silva says that’s what he’s doing.
Funded by a Florida-based migrant farmworker organization, Harvest of Hope, the trek from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., is not an impromptu effort. Donors have equipped the walkers with new sneakers and a van that will follow them and drive them through tougher stretches. A committee interviewed and carefully selected the four 20-somethings months in advance from a larger pool of applicants.
Network of support
One of many local allies, Berkeley resident Martha Dueñas found them a place to stay before their launch, first in her home and later at a Lutheran Church near the UC Berkeley campus. Another church — an Episcopal one — will house them in the Contra Costa hamlet of Crockett before they cross the Carquinez Strait headed toward Nevada.
“They’re willing to put a lot on the line,” said Dueñas, organizer for the Share Foundation, a Salvadoran-American nonprofit. “When people put a face to this group of undocumented students, it will make a difference.”