Yazmin Martinez spent her Saturday morning in the Iron Triangle walking sidewalks littered with garbage and weeds, knocking on doors and asking residents who don’t normally vote to show up at the polls this November. She was encouraging voters to exercise their civic right because she cannot.
Martinez is one of an estimated 5,000 undocumented immigrants in Richmond, according to a 2010 study by the Public Policy Institute of California. While Martinez doesn’t have a say in elections, that doesn’t stop her from being politically active. Martinez said that because she cannot vote does not mean she can’t encourage other people to vote for the things she believes in.
She’s not walking these streets alone. Martinez recently joined a new group that is organizing undocumented youth who want to pursue comprehensive immigration reform.
Days after a recent presidential decision to offer some undocumented immigrants immunity from deportation and work permits, Carlos Martinez and Jose Juan Reyes decided to form Community Leaders Organizing Undocumented Dreamers, or CLOUD, to advocate for teenagers and young adults who want to apply for “deferred action.” While counseling youth through the process of applying for deferred action, CLOUD is also training its members to volunteer and help others apply. In two summer events that drew around 600 people, the group provided information about deferred action and screened possible applicants.
“I got really inspired by seeing the work that they were doing,” said Jaquelin Valencia, a 20-year-old leader in CLOUD. “I like community organizing, and I think that’s what got my attention. I want to do what they’re doing. I want to inform.”
More than 40 “dreamers” attended a CLOUD meeting in late September to hear about the application process. Heather Wolf, the director of Catholic Charities of the East Bay and an immigration attorney, led attendees through the dense and complicated paperwork.
“When I came here I felt like I had no help from anyone. I know that feeling,” said Horatio Torres, a 19-year-old CLOUD member who said he wants to help his friends and family learn more about deferred action. “I feel like people need to help because sometimes they’re scared to ask.”
Yazmin Martinez was seven years old when she crossed the Mexican border in the trunk of a car. She was lying next to her two-year-old brother, she said. Her parents were in the front. At one point on the drive, she said, an Immigrations and Custom Enforcement vehicle started tailing them. She said the officers pulled them over and pointed guns at her parents. The officers didn’t know there were children in the car until Martinez looked up. At that point, “they actually stopped and let us go,” she said.
“I didn’t really know what was going on,” Martinez said. “We were just following my parents. I knew they just wanted the best for us. It was tough. And then when we got here — the language barrier — the whole transition was very hard. But we were able to overcome it.”
The memory brought tears to her eyes and her voice wavered.
“Right now, we feel that we’ve been growing up here,” she said. “We deserve a chance to be recognized and not be in the shadows.”
Deferred action, CLOUD organizers say, is a step in that direction. But the bigger-picture goal is permanent immigration reform.
“We don’t want to just settle for this,” said CLOUD member Jesus Gonzales, 22. “We want real, comprehensive immigration reform. So not only I can benefit, but my parents, my sister — anybody who deserves to be here.”
For Martinez, family is her biggest reason to fight for citizenship, more so now than ever before. She gave birth to a baby boy in June. Unlike Martinez, three-month-old Giovani Cruz is a citizen.
“I don’t want to be afraid of being deported,” Martinez said. “I want to be able to work hard to give my baby everything he deserves.”
Reyes and Carlos Martinez formed CLOUD in partnership with Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, which is leading a campaign to get unlikely voters to the polls in November. Volunteers from CLOUD and CCISCO are making phone calls on weekday nights and knocking on doors Saturday mornings to encourage Latino residents to cast a ballot in favor of Proposition 30, which would raise sales tax, and income tax for taxpayers making more than $250,000, and direct the money to public schools and public safety.
“Proposition 30 is really a critical measure about investing in our future,” said Adam Kruggel, executive director of CCISCO. “We are focused on really empowering, encouraging, all people of color to vote, especially folks who don’t traditionally participate in the democratic process.”
While raising taxes for public schools and safety is a different matter than immigration reform, CLOUD members like Yazmin Martinez still hope Prop 30 passes. Martinez graduated from Richmond High School with honors in 2010 and had filled out applications to UC Berkeley, UC Davis and San Francisco State. But she never applied. It was too expensive and not being a citizen, she didn’t qualify for financial aid.
“My only choice was community college,” Martinez said.
CCISCO is targeting all Latino and Spanish-speaking voters in Contra Costa County, and has a goal of talking to 30,000 voters countywide.
“We want to actually be able to document that we moved 6,000 voters,” Kruggel said.
In the Iron Triangle, Martinez scanned her clipboard for the next address on the list and looked up. It was a house guarded with an iron fence and dogs. As soon as she stepped closer, one of the dogs ran down the stoop and barred its teeth, defending its territory with a piercing bark.
“Hello?” Martinez called. No one came out.
“Hello?” she called again. This time a woman opened the door.
“Is Alisa here?” Martinez asked.
“She’s out,” the woman responded.
Martinez kept going.
“We were just trying to spread the word about Proposition 30.”
After explaining the proposition to the woman, and pleading with her about expensive tuition not only in her case, but every child and student in California, Martinez left the woman with a couple pamphlets and moved on to the next door.
Walking down the sidewalk, Martinez admitted that she was intimidated walking around a new neighborhood, knocking on strangers’ doors, dogs barking at her. But she kept walking forward. One foot in front of the other — stepping forward for her son, for her parents who haven’t seen their family in Mexico since they crossed the border, and for her dream to go to college and become a pediatrician.
“Thank God we’re getting this opportunity,” she said. “We will take advantage of it. We will keep fighting.”