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Helping others like her: Miami activist leads national college aid program for the undocumented

Maria Gabriela Pacheco gave a speech at the MALDEF gala in November 2019, where she was a recipient of the Excellent in Community Service award.
Photo courtesy of Maria Gabriela Pacheco
Maria Gabriela Pacheco began her new role as the CEO and President at TheDream.US. on Nov. 1.

After getting her first class schedule at Miami Dade College, Maria Gabriela Pacheco began to cry.

“It’s okay, you’ll get a better schedule next semester,” Pacheco’s advisor said.

Pacheco smiled at her and responded, “No, you don’t understand. I’m crying because I made it, and I feel very terrible that I made it.”

The year was 2003. Pacheco's mix of emotions stemmed from the fact that she was getting an opportunity that her friends and sisters had been denied because of their immigration status.

Pacheco was among the first undocumented students admitted to Miami Dade College.

“I held my hand to that paper and I made a promise that I was going to fight to open the doors for other people… that anybody who wanted to go to college should be able to have that access,” Pacheco added.

“She is an advocate for every undocumented man, woman and child.”
Don Graham, a co-founder of TheDream.US

Fast forward two decades and Pacheco is now the leader of the largest college aid program for undocumented youth in the United States — TheDream.US. She began her new role on Nov. 1.

“She is the best person I have ever met at explaining the situation of undocumented people to those who don't understand it,” said Don Graham, a co-founder of TheDream.US. “She is an advocate for every undocumented man, woman and child.”

Pacheco — who was previously director of advocacy, development and communications at the organization — told WLRN the new leadership role is the culmination of her advocacy. She aims "to break down the barriers and ensure that individuals who have a desire and a dream to go to college have those opportunities."

Pursuing her own American Dream

Pacheco began advocating for undocumented students while she was one herself at MDC.

The Dream US with dreamers, Don Graham and Gaby Pacheco, February 8, 2019
Photo courtesy of Maria Gabriela Pacheco
Don Graham and Maria Gabriela Pacheco from TheDream.US met with President Emeritus of Miami Dade College Eduardo Padrón and Miami Dade College students in February 2019.

As a student government leader, she pushed legislators in Tallahassee to approve in-state tuition for undocumented students.

“Having known Gaby since her days as an exemplary student at Miami Dade College, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing her transformation into an inspiration for Florida students and Dreamers across the nation,” said Miami Dade College President Emeritus Eduardo J. Padrón, who is also a TheDream.US advisory board member, in a statement issued by the organization.

Pacheco says she was flown throughout the country during that time to share her story and talk about the Dream Act, which would offer immigration relief for people who came at a young age to the United States.

“As soon as I learned that I had been given this privilege and this opportunity to go to school, I knew that it couldn't be just for me,” Pacheco said.

She earned an associate’s degree in early childhood education and teaching and a bachelor’s degree in special education and teaching from Miami Dade College.

“As soon as I learned that I had been given this privilege and this opportunity to go to school, I knew that it couldn't be just for me."
Gaby Pacheco

But after graduating, she couldn’t get a job because of her immigration status. “I was fed up,” she added.

So Pacheco and some of her classmates from Miami Dade College walked from Miami to Washington D.C. in 2010 to continue advocating for legal pathways for undocumented people.

But the Dream Act didn’t pass. “That really propelled us to fight even harder,” Pacheco said.

She and other activists continued to push for the Obama administration to create what would become known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA. The legislation signed in 2012 offered deportation protections and work permits to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. Pacheco was part of the program.

READ MORE: Federal judge again declares that DACA is illegal

Barack Obama announced the executive action that would create Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in June 2012. Gabriela Pacheco stands behind him, in blue.
Photo courtesy of Maria Gabriela Pacheco
Former President Barack Obama announced the executive action that would create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, in June 2012. Maria Gabriela Pacheco stands behind him, in blue.

From Ecuador to America

Pacheco came to South Florida in 1993, at the age of eight, with her parents and three siblings. She says her father wanted his children to be able to walk from their house to school, a level of safety and security he didn’t see in Ecuador.

They came with a tourist visa and immediately hired an immigration attorney to start the process of obtaining a green card. But Pacheco’s family missed the date to submit additional documents for the immigration form — that’s when they became undocumented.

Nonetheless, Pacheco’s parents had managed to get social security numbers, so they were able to work. They lived in Kendall, and Pacheco was able to walk to school — like her father wanted.

Maria Gabriela Pacheco with one of her sisters and three cousins at a fair in Ecuador.
Photo courtesy of Maria Gabriela Pacheco
Maria Gabriela Pacheco, pictured on the front left, with one of her sisters and three cousins at a fair in Ecuador.

“While we grew up poor, we had everything we needed,” she said.

But the situation began getting harder, to the point where no one in the house could work or renew their driver’s licenses. So everyone had to start helping pay for the bills.

It became even more difficult when Pacheco was admitted to Miami Dade College because she had to pay tuition as an international student, which cost her $4,000 to $5,000 per semester — much more than what her parents made in two or three months.

However, she finished her studies by receiving some scholarships and grants, and by working multiple jobs. One semester, she worked six jobs which included catering, babysitting, car washing, and teaching violin, viola and cello lessons.

“This was just my everyday life, and all of us worked really, really hard,” said the 38-year-old, who gained her legal U.S. residency through marriage.

Pacheco continues to work hard for undocumented students — now as a U.S. citizen.

“I had been asking America to marry me for a very long time and it finally said yes,” Pacheco said. “I have loved this country my whole, entire life. I have always felt an American, and now I just have a piece of paper to prove that.”

In her new role, Pacheco wants to keep pushing for all states to have in-state tuition and provide state aid for undocumented students, as well as work toward making postgraduate admissions easier for undocumented students who need a graduate degree to work in fields like psychology or law.

She also wants to ensure, through education campaigns, that businesses and nonprofits know there are ways they can support the students.

TheDream.US scholarships are now open. For more information and details about the requirements and deadlines, contact TheDream.US@applyISTS.com or 855-670-4787.

Ammy Sanchez, the Morning Edition producer for WLRN, studies communications at the Honors College at Florida International University.
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