Immigrant rights activist: People ‘have a voice, and it’s powerful’

Politicians and organizations may claim credit, but real social change results from the determined work of ordinary people, immigrant rights activist Gaby Pacheco told a student audience at Indiana University Bloomington today.

“We need to put the communities who are being affected by the issues at the forefront,” she said. “They have a voice, and it’s powerful.”

Gaby Pacheco

Gaby Pacheco

Pacheco was a keynote speaker for “Moving the World Forward: Exploring a Future in Public Service,” a conference for diverse, high-achieving college students from around the U.S. The IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs hosted the conference, which was created by the Public Policy and International Affairs program in partnership with the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration.

An undocumented immigrant who speaks openly about her status and experiences, Maria Gabriela “Gaby” Pacheco has been a leading advocate for immigrants who arrived as children. Her work was instrumental in the 2012 adoption of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides opportunities for immigrants who arrived as children to stay in the U.S.

Her advocacy included working with politicians from both sides of the aisle, speaking up to powerful senators and refusing to be co-opted by the agendas of office-holders and organized groups. It took courage “but also just acting with my gut” to effect change, she said.

Pacheco came to the U.S. with her parents from Ecuador at age 8. She described her family as privileged: They arrived by air rather than slipping across borders. But like most immigrants, she said, her parents were motivated by the prospect of a better life for their children.

Her sensitivity to injustice was aroused when her older sister was denied enrollment in a local community college because she didn’t have the right documentation. Pacheco threw herself into high school academics, clubs and sports. She refused to accept the advice of a high school counselor who told her to “put that idea of college out of your head.”

A key event in her activism was organizing and participating in the Trail of Dreams, a four-month walk from Miami to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of and support for the DREAM Act, which would have granted legal status to childhood arrivals like herself.

In her talk, she said she and her friends were terrified as they walked through rural communities where anti-immigrant sentiment was strong. But along the way they “found some really incredible human beings,” she said. An elderly African-American woman gave them money she couldn’t afford to part with. A man who had been harassing them later apologized and offered his support.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “we’re all human beings, and we need to connect at that level.”

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