She kept it close as she and her mother crossed the Rio Grande and took refuge in a stranger’s remote trailer. She kept it close as another stranger drove her to the Houston house of an aunt and uncle she didn’t recognize, with the promise that her mother would soon join her.
She kept it even closer after she learned that her mother had been caught by immigration enforcement agents, deported and would have to make the journey all over again to get back to her.
“Every day, I prayed to the guardian angel to bring my mother back,” Martínez, now 20, recalls. “I would just say the same prayer until he granted my miracle, and we were reunited.”
The pictures snapped in front of the Supreme Court on Tuesday, when viewed by future generations, will show young people standing firm, holding signs, looking bold and unafraid. They will show a political protest in the face of one of the most divisive issues of our times: the Trump administration’s push to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which offers protections to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.
But if we look at Martínez, who was one of the many immigrants in that crowd, it’s clear that those images also capture something else: a show of power by people who, in many moments of their lives, have felt anything but powerful.
To look at Martínez now is to see a done-holding-back activist who sometimes steps over lines that others wouldn’t approach. She says and does things that don’t fit the comfortable narrative of the grateful, good immigrant who just wants a spot in this country. She is not all “thank you, thank you, thank you.”
She will tell you that she hopes for citizenship, even as she explains that if she got it, she doesn’t think she would ever feel American.
“In this country, I’m fighting for my future and the future of my family, and that does not feel welcoming,” she says. After her mother made it back into the United States, the family moved to North Carolina, pulled by the promise of jobs in the textile industry. Martínez grew up there, but it never felt like home, she says.
“North Carolina was not welcoming to me,” she says. “It has never welcomed my family. In seventh grade, I was speaking Spanish one day, and my teacher told me: ‘This is an American school. This is America. And if you can’t speak English, get out.’ ”
It didn’t matter that she was an honors student or that she was fluent in English. It didn’t matter that she had spent so many years in the United States that she had forgotten her indigenous family’s language.
“Get out” was what she was told then.
“Get out” is what she is being told now.
The stories of DACA recipients are often heartwarming heralds of high achievers. They tell of doctors, lawyers and other professionals who make our country stronger. Those narratives offer important reminders about the impressive contributions immigrants can make when they don’t have to worry about deportation and are given work permits.
But the danger in them is that they allow us to feel as if we are embracing immigrants, even as our immigration system continues to make life difficult for their family members, neighbors and classmates who didn’t qualify for DACA. We’re not talking about people who commit crimes after arriving in the country. We are talking about people who are deemed criminals just for coming.
“Our fight is beyond DACA,” Martínez wrote in recent op-ed for Latino Rebels. “The movement continues with or without DACA’s continuation.”
On Twitter, she has written, “Do not criminalize my parents.”
Martínez was a freshman in high school when she first qualified for the DACA program. She took honors and AP classes, but during her senior year, she realized she had no way to pay tuition at the colleges that accepted her. After graduation, she worked two jobs, hoping to save enough to attend community college. She knew her family had placed their hopes in her. Her grandmother was illiterate, and her mother’s schooling didn’t go beyond the fifth grade.
Martínez recalls the day she and her mother were watching TV and learned that the Trump administration was ending DACA. Martínez realized that her deferral expired in March 2018 and that she probably wouldn’t be eligible for a renewal.
“I looked at my mom and was like, ‘It’s going to be okay,’ ” Martínez says. “But deep inside, I also knew that was it for me. There was going to be no education for me. From now on, it was going to be about surviving.”
She wasn’t yet involved in activism, but that moment propelled her toward organizations that were fighting for and alongside immigrants. Not long after that, she landed a full scholarship from TheDream.US to attend Trinity Washington University.
Last fall, she took on an internship with Faith in Public Life, a D.C. organization that represents a network of 50,000 faith leaders. She no longer works there, but she still volunteers. On the day the Supreme Court heard arguments about DACA, Martínez handled the social media accounts for the organization.
“We would still have her on the team if we had the space and funding,” says Sara Benitez, vice president of organizing and campaign. “We got clued in very fast that Arlin was very gifted and unafraid.”
Sometimes too unafraid. Recently, during an event at her school, Martínez confronted Jay Carney, who works for Amazon, about the company’s ties to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She also wrote about it. Jeff Bezos, who heads Amazon (and owns The Washington Post) is behind the scholarship that supports Martínez’s education.
“I think it takes a lot of courage to not sit down at a time when others would,” Benitez says.
Martínez says she wasn’t sure if she would lose her scholarship or get expelled, but she knew she couldn’t stay quiet. “I would not be myself if I didn’t stand up for what I believe in,” she says. “Even if it meant my future, I prefer to have spoken out for my community than to not have.”
What could be more American than feeling the freedom to speak out, to step up, to say the things that make people uncomfortable because those who have the most to lose can’t?
Depending on what happens with DACA, Martínez may have to change her goals. But for now, she hopes to finish college, get a job as a lawyer and give her family a strong foundation before she returns to Mexico, where the grandmother who gave her that prayer card 16 years ago still lives.
The plastic that once smoothly covered the card now curls upward at the edges. But it otherwise remains intact. Martínez is no longer the little girl who used it to pray, but by placing it on the wall she passes most each day, she is still keeping it close. She is still finding comfort in it.
More than that, she says, “It reminds me what I’m here for.”
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