Marina resident Pablo Martínez Perez had two crucial goals as he prepared to attend the State of the Union address: to bring a message to Washington D.C. about the value of Dreamers, and why the Farm Workforce Modernization Act deserves support in the Senate.
As chance would have it, he ended up sitting in front of one of the most strident anti-immigrant figures of the Republican Party: Jan Brewer, the former Arizona governor who signed into law a measure penalizing immigrants for being in the state without carrying federal identification and those harboring and transporting undocumented migrants. Upon learning who she was, Martínez offered his hand and began delivering his pitch.
“I introduced myself,” he said. “I’m Pablo, I’m a Dreamer from California. I got out of the fields, attended college and now I have an education. I just wanted to demonstrate to her that we’re not doing anything bad, that we’re here to succeed and do something to improve our country.”
Brewer replied with a polite “nice to meet you,” and with a look of puzzlement, as if she wanted to ask “why are you telling me this,” Martínez said.
The entire trip was a whirlwind for Martínez, a graduate of Monterey Peninsula College, who attended the State of the Union address as a guest of Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel. Martinez spent less than three days in the nation’s capital but had the experience of a lifetime, meeting dozens of lawmakers, being interviewed by several media outlets and walking through the tunnels of Congress as if he belonged there.
“Visitors don’t have access to (those places),” he said. “It was amazing, I had free access like any other regular member of the House. It was a really great experience, I have something to tell my grandsons in the future.”
Martínez was 13 years old when he came to the United States, and soon after he began working in the fields. The family settled in King City, so the jobs available in the area are mostly at vineyards harvesting grapes. He continued working in the fields for 16 years, adding lettuce and strawberries to the list of crops he worked on, then moved to the Monterey Peninsula to be a full-time student and to work part time in the service industry. At MPC, he joined Dreamers in Action, a club dedicated to helping undocumented students traverse bureaucratic labyrinths and fill out scholarship applications. A year later he became the club’s president.
Martínez is one of thousands of beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program signed into law by President Barack Obama to give temporary legal status to immigrants who came to the United States illegally as minors. The program opened a lot of doors for him, so he knows the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would do the same for thousands of others.
“These agricultural (workers) need to get out of the shadows and they want the opportunity to be part of the community and participate in the community just like any other person would do,” Martínez said.
Introduced in the House of Representatives last year, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would create a pathway to legalization for current undocumented agricultural workers. It would reform and modernize the existing temporary agricultural worker visa program, and it would require all agriculture employers to implement a verification system to ensure their workers are legally authorized to work in the United States.
As a volunteer with the United Farm Workers Foundation, he’s helping DACA recipients renew their application — it expires every two years — and he’s also learning what the process is to apply for residency and naturalization.
Besides his brief encounter with Brewer, Martínez met dozens of lawmakers and journalists during his two-day visit to the nation’s capital, he said.
And just as he had planned, he had the opportunity to deliver a message on behalf of agricultural workers on the Central Coast.
“We need the opportunity, as undocumented people who work in the fields, to have a voice,” Martinez said. “Sometimes they feel they’re not part of this country, but they work every day starting at 4 a.m. and (at least) for 10 hours. Sometimes they’ve been treated super bad and they don’t report bad treatment because they’re scared to be deported or separated from their families.”
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of the story misidentified Martinez’s affiliation. He’s a volunteer with the United Farm Workers Foundation.