Photo by Corinne Nicholson
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Wednesday, four college students on their way from Miami to Washington converged on the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in hopes of speaking with Sheriff Butch Conway.
The purpose of their 1,500 mile "Trail of Dreams" walk is to address the country's immigration system.
As part of that agenda, the students hoped to meet with Conway regarding the 287(g) program recently implemented at the Gwinnett County Jail.
The federal immigration program, they say, is oppressive and discriminatory.
"Local enforcement of federal policies like the one Sheriff Conway is proudly implementing are proof of the need for real immigration reform," said one student, Juan Rodriguez, 20. "These policies have the long-term effect of criminalizing immigrants, the vast majority of whom are here only to work hard and provide for their families."
Of the four walkers, Rodriguez is the only documented alien, earning his residency in 2009.
At GJAC, representatives from several organizations including the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, Atlantans Building Leadership for Empowerment (ABLE) and Amnesty International greeted students, who began their walk Jan. 1.
One man held a sign proclaiming, "Reform not raids!" Another sign read, "No human being is illegal."
One walker, 22-year-old Carlos Roa, is studying architecture at Miami Dade College but is afraid he won't be able to find a good job because of his immigration status.
He said immigrants come to America seeking a better life but constantly live in an "omnipresent fear" of being deported.
"In essence we are living the American nightmare," he said.
After briefing media and supporters on their intent, the students and their followers filed into the building and toward the Sheriff's Department office.
There they met with a department representative, but not Conway.
"They were told last week that the sheriff would not be able to meet with them," said department spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais. "He was working today but not in the office and was not available."
The group considered it a step forward.
"There was someone willing and open to speak with us to hear our message, to understand why we would come such a long way to share what's happening in the communities," said Felipe Matos, 23. "We have been trying for many years to ... gain status, to find a pathway, but for so many people ... that pathway doesn't exist. This is why we need immigration reform."
Twenty-five-year-old Gaby Pacheco was brought to the United States in 1993 at the age of 7. In 2006, federal immigration agents raided her home and her parents have been fighting deportation since. She believes immigrants here are living in a country -- and dealing with a system -- that has failed them.
"It's disheartening to see that a person who believes in justice ... criminalizes human beings because of (the color of their skin) and because they don't have documentation," Pacheco said. "Today my message to not just the sheriff, but to people all over the world, is that we are all human beings."
Reverend Tracy Blagec, of ABLE, said her organization has been fighting the "good fight" against 287(g) for a long time, pushing for comprehensive reform.
"Because what's happening at the local level is not working," she said. "This is not a country where anybody should be living in fear ... We're saying that the community of faith is here, we're going to stay here until this battle is won."