By Tovin Lapan
Las Vegas Sun
On March, 10 Jonatan Martinez and four others started walking from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and they will keep walking six days per week until they reach Washington, D.C., on Nov. 2.
Martinez, who was brought to the United States when he was 4 years old, does not have a legal residency status. He discovered he was undocumented when he went to the Coast Guard recruiting office after graduating high school and discovered he could not enlist.
Martinez and his compatriots are walking the more than 3,000 miles from coast to coast to champion and raise awareness of the Dream Act, the proposed law that would allow some young immigrants in the country illegally to work toward a legal residency status and citizenship if they pursue higher education or enlist in the military.
Martinez, 25, went to college in Georgia, where he grew up, and, just before his graduation ceremony, he was detained by immigration authorities while visiting a friend on another college campus. Soon after he went public with his status.
The Sun caught up with Martinez for questions after he and his fellow walkers spent a day in Sacramento meeting with California legislators. The initiative, dubbed the Campaign for an American Dream, and the walkers will reach northern Nevada on Wednesday. During their transcontinental journey, they plan to also visit Utah, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia. In Nevada they will visit towns along Route 50, passing through Carson City, Dayton, Stagecoach and Silver Springs.
How did you discover that you did not have legal residency in the country?
When I was 17, I didn’t know that I was undocumented. My parents hadn’t told me, and I think when I was younger they didn’t think I would understand. Everyone was applying to colleges and universities in Georgia, and I wanted to join the Coast Guard and train to be a search-and-rescue diver. My friend went to a recruiter and signed up, and so I went by myself without my parents to do the same thing. I walked in for my appointment and I was so excited. It seemed awesome. We watched videos and I got info on the Coast Guard. Then I showed him by birth certificate from Mexico. … He told me I was not in the system, and I didn’t know what to say. I felt lost. It literally crushed my whole entire life. I balled up, and I wouldn’t tell anybody. I kept to myself. I did have a conversation with my mom, and she cried and told me she had wanted a better life for me.”
Eventually you did “come out,” what motivated you to go public with your status?
I was visiting one of my best friends at his school. We were in the dorms with other students and there was a noise complaint. Campus security came to calm things down and they asked for IDs. I said I don’t go to school here and they checked. They were part of Secure Communities. I wasn’t in the system, and they took me to a county holding cell. An ICE agent said if I was undocumented and can’t prove my residency or citizenship status, they would start the process for deportation. I didn’t talk to an attorney while I was in there, but my parents hired an attorney. I never spoke with her and then on my last day in court she didn’t even show up. She called in and asked for voluntary departure, meaning they would release me to go to graduation and I would voluntarily leave. … I filed a complaint against that attorney in the end, because she asked for voluntary departure without my permission, and right now we are petitioning to reopen the case. My four weeks in detention really opened my eyes to how broken this system is. There were people in there being kept from their families, and one guy had been in their eight or nine months trying to get a review.
How is the walking going?
I’m a pretty active runner, and I will run eight or nine miles regularly. I thought the walking would be easy, but we cover 15 to 20 miles a day on average, and it’s a strain on your bones and feet. It’s different from running, but we’ve been keeping the fire and motivation and passion to continue. There’s a store in Gainesville, Fla., that donated 16 pairs of shoes for each person … We have a ritual every morning where we meditate on prayer — we are all different denominations so it’s like meditation — then we talk about the agenda for the day and start walking at 8:30 a.m. after breakfast. We stop every two hours for water and a break, take one hour for lunch and on average we finish walking around 6:30 p.m.
What do you say to critics of the Dream Act that have called it amnesty and a handout that will encourage more immigration?
There are certain prerequisites, and you can write it out to only benefit people who are already in the country and came or were brought here at an early age. Not everyone will qualify, even if it is passed. Like any group, there are some people who are good and some who are bad. I want the Dream Act to benefit undocumented youth who are being productive and giving back to the community. We are not asking for the government to just hand out citizenship, we want to earn it. People say it’s a handout, well we don’t want a handout. I want to earn it based on work in the community or school. We want to give back to the country in any way, shape or form we can. The process could take 11 years or more before I would be eligible to sponsor anyone like my parents for residency … It’s not about benefiting parents, it’s about having a way to give back to a country that I grew up in. I stood in front of a flag and pledged allegiance every morning like every other school kid. When 9/11 came, I felt just as patriotic as every other person.
How would you define success for the campaign?
The campaign to me is just the beginning to something better. We want to do a lot of talks with people and we want them to be inspired to do something else and continue the effort. … That said, if we can get the Dream Act to be reintroduced again on a level that would lead to its passage, that would be a success.