Gabriela Pacheco was still deep asleep when her sister shook her shoulder.
The prominent youth leader, immigrant advocate and honors college student faced her worst fears: Her family was being rounded up by immigration authorities.
A Miami-Dade police officer and a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent were watching from Gabriela’s bedroom door. Down the hall, other law enforcement officials waited, while several more surrounded the house.
Agents took Gabriela’s father, mother and two sisters to the immigration building on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. Although the family was released later the same day, deportation proceedings have begun.
The family’s lawyer, Ira Kurzban, disputes the reason for ICE’s visit.
“We believe they targeted this family because of Gaby’s activities and public appearances on issues related to immigration,” he said. “This is selective prosecution, and we’re going to be challenging the government’s conduct based on violation of the right to free speech.”
Gabriela, 21, has spent much of her young life as a passionate advocate for those like her: the undocumented children of immigrants. The entire family—her father, Gustavo; her mother, Maria, and siblings Erika, 27, Maria, 26, and Enrique, 20—came to the United States on tourist visas in 1993, when Gabriela was 7 years old. They stayed because of the violence in their native Ecuador, Gabriela said.
Even after she obtained a student visa several years ago—and with it the security that comes with legal status—she still lobbied incessantly for a failed bill that would have allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition.
After many years as a student leader at Miami Dade College, last year Gabriela was elected statewide president of the Florida Junior and Community Colleges Association, an organization that represents 1.1 million students. She frequently traveled to Tallahassee, working most passionately on legislation that would allow in-state tuition for college students who had lived in Florida several years but whose legal status was in question.
In March, she organized a student rally at the Capitol.
Gustavo Pacheco, a pastor, is also an activist in the movement for immigrant rights. Just last weekend, he spoke at a vigil against an ordinance in Avon Park, a small city about 85 miles from Tampa, that would have imposed fines on those who provide jobs or housing to illegal immigrants.