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Immigration, Same-Sex Marriage Transform Activists' Lives

On a bright New Year’s Day in 2010, a small group of immigrants including a young couple in love laced up donated sneakers for a 1,500-mile march from Miami to Washington.
The goal was simple: to call attention to the plight of youth like themselves living in the United States illegally, and to urge President Barack Obama to issue a temporary reprieve from deportation for millions of these young immigrants.
Dozens of relatives and friends gathered round. Juan Rodriguez silently put a hand on Felipe Sousa Matos’ back, steadying his boyfriend. Matos’ older sisters, one who was also in the country illegally, burst into tears. “Promise you’ll come back,” they said, afraid of what awaited the youths along the back roads of the rural South.
It’s easy to forget how much has changed since that walk dubbed the “Trail of Dreams,” which generated headlines from South America to Asia. Five years ago, the immigration movement was stalled, many viewed the youths’ quest as a pipe dream, and same-sex marriage was legal in just a few states.
Florida is set next week to become the 36th state to recognize same-sex marriage. On the immigration front, Obama issued a deportation reprieve in 2012 for millions of youth, and he followed that up in November by expanding the order to cover millions more teens and adults.
As for Matos, who now goes by Sousa-Rodriguez, he and Rodriguez have become leaders in the immigration movement, are married and hope one day to have a family of their own.
Their story is at once a modern American romance and a sign of just how far and how fast this country has moved on two of the most controversial issues of our time.
On the trail that first day, the 23-year-old Sousa-Rodriguez couldn’t begin to imagine the changes that lay ahead. He was terrified how strangers would react to his budding relationship with Rodriguez, 20, worried they might be attacked. By the time the group reached the small, Haitian church where they would spend the night, afternoon showers had soaked his shoes, and blisters covered his feet.
Rodriguez reminded him why they were walking. They’d tried letter-writing campaigns, organized local protests to raise attention about Obama’s stepped-up deportations. But few in Washington seemed to want to deal with the millions of youths whose parents had brought them to the United States.
In the following weeks, the couple and fellow marchers Gabby Pacheco and Carlos Roa Jr. visited historic civil rights landmarks across the South. The nonprofit Florida Immigrant Coalition provided a van to accompany them. At each stop they told their stories. Rodriguez, a Colombian, had been fifth in his graduating high school class in Broward County but initially had to work as a janitor because of his immigration status until his stepmother successfully petitioned for him. Sousa-Rodriguez had been sent to the U.S. by his mother and was now struggling to finish his bachelor’s degree, fearful any chance encounter with police could end with him being deported to the impoverished suburbs of Rio.
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