Washington – About 200 undocumented students from all over the country on Tuesday here demanded that President Barack Obama halt deportations and push for the approval of the DREAM Act to legalize their immigration status.
Prior to those pressure tactics, Obama had reiterated his support for immigration reform and the DREAM Act at a White House press conference focused mainly on the budget and other issues.
The president called for the legalization of students who have grown up in the United States "and think of themselves as Americans and who are illegal through no fault of their own and who are ready to give back to our country and go to school and fight in our military."
But the students, first in a crowded hall of the Senate building and later in front of the White House, complained that Obama had supported immigration reform with words and not deeds.
The students, many of them facing possible deportation, came to Washington from as far away as California, Texas and Florida with a single message: the immigration system needs reform.
Also attending the event and lending the students his support was Pulitzer Prize-winning Filipino journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who founded the Define American organization in favor of immigration reform and recently publicly admitted that he is undocumented.
Vargas said he was inspired to come forward by the stories of students who walked 2,414 kilometers (about 1,500 miles) from Miami to make their voices heard in Washington.
In remarks to Efe, Vargas complained that state governments are considering or have approved their own anti-immigrant laws due to Washington's inaction.
"We have to elevate the dialogue on immigration in the U.S. because this isn't just a Latino issue; we're very diverse but we want the same thing that legal residents want, and I think that that's the message," Vargas said.
Mandeep Chahal, an Indian national attending the University of California, Davis, said that Obama "has the power to stop the deportations of people like me."
Her case is like that of thousands of others who live in fear of being discovered to be undocumented and subsequently deported.
Chahal, who launched a national campaign on Facebook, managed to get a judge to temporarily suspend a deportation order against her and her mother but that, she said, does not erase the memory of the treatment she received at the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
"They put an electronic shackle on my ankle. They told me that I was lucky not to be in prison. They treated me like a criminal," Chahal said.
Obama "decided to focus on other things... If he turns his back on us, we'll do that to him also," said student Erika Andiola, alluding to a withdrawal of Hispanic voting support for the president in the 2012 election.
Cheered by the students, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, sponsor of the DREAM Act, promised that he will continue fighting for approval of the measure.
He urged the students to forge a "grassroots movement" via social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
The DREAM Act would allow the legalization of undocumented students who, among other requirements, entered the country before age 16, complete at least two years of college or enlist in the Armed Forces.