Maria Christina Martinez was 18 years old when nine Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents rolled up in black SUVs outside her family’s Newburgh, New York, apartment at 6 a.m.
They were looking for her father, Martin Martinez.
The Martinezes had lived in Newburgh for 30 years. Martin Martinez had fled Mexico in 1986 for the U.S., where he met his wife, Julia Ochoa, also from Mexico.
They obtained their work authorization permits and Social Security numbers in 2004, which allowed them to work legally in the U.S., according to Maria Martinez. (Her dad most recently worked at a Staples distribution center in Montgomery, New York.)
Martin Martinez and his wife requested asylum in 2004 but were denied. After an appeal was also denied three years later, they waited to be deported.
That finally came with the reported change in immigration policy under the Trump administration.
Martin Martinez was deported last year. Seven months later, he was dead.
“The story ends tragically. It ends with Maria Martinez holding a service in Newburg, New York … mourning that loss of this guy who was in the United States for more than 30 years after entering illegally,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney said.
The New York Democrat attended the funeral. Maria Martinez started out as an intern in his Newburgh district office in 2013, and she now works at the New York attorney general’s office — a position Maloney is now seeking.
“It’s not just some game on Twitter like the president seems to think it is,” he said. “There are families like the Martinezes — people who are losing family members because we are screwing around on this policy when we ought to be fixing it.”
Martinez, now 23, remains frustrated with what her family went through — and what other families are now confronting.
“My parents did everything right. People say, ‘Wow, 30 years, he had all the time to do something, and he didn’t do anything.’ That’s a lie. They tried since the minute that [they] entered the country. It’s just very difficult,” the Newburgh native said.
“My parents never lived off of government assistance, they never got food stamps, they paid taxes since they started working in the U.S. Immigration has those records,” she said.
Martinez is convinced that had her father not been deported, “he would still be with us.”
“It’s only because of the hateful rhetoric coming out of the administration, innocent people like my parents are being targeted and being separated,” she said. “They’re not prioritizing the real criminals we should be going after. People love to make assumptions about people like my parents.”
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What happened to Martin
In 2007, according to Maria Martinez, her parents filed a motion to reopen their asylum case, but the judge denied the motion and told them they would be receiving a letter of deportation. The letter never came, she said, so her parents stayed in the U.S. and kept working.
Asked about the case, Rachael Yong Yow, a public affairs officer for ICE in New York, said in an email that Martin Martinez was “ordered removed by an immigration judge in New York” in August 2004. Yong Yow said he filed an appeal of that decision with the Board of Immigration Appeals, which was denied in March 2007.
Martin Martinez had his work permit, formally known as an employment authorization document or EAD, for as long as his daughter can remember, and she said he was renewing it annually.
By June 2017, right before he was deported, more than 1,612,000 EADs had already been approved for the fiscal year that began the previous Oct. 1, according to a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman.
Most of the work permits issued were valid for one year, although a vast majority of EADS for those claiming Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status — known as “Dreamers” — were good for two years.
In 2013, ICE showed up at the Martinezes’ home. Asked if Martin Martinez’s six-year wait for deportation was typical, ICE and the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review referred the inquiry back and forth to each other. Neither answered the question.
Maria Martinez recalled that morning: “I remember the ICE agent just said, ‘We’re looking for Martin Martinez, is he home?’ My mom was panicking, she thought it was the police. They were going after anyone who had convictions.”
Martin Martinez had been convicted of misdemeanor driving under the influence in 1996 and 2001.
When asked if she was a citizen, Julia Ochoa told the agents she was not and she was arrested, too.
The two were held in a detention center for two weeks. Maria Martinez and her brother Martin Martinez Jr. spoke to lawyers and launched an online petition campaign to try to secure their release.
“Because of all the public pressure, ICE decided to release my parents,” she said.
ICE would not comment on whether public pressure had anything to do with Martin Martinez’s release.
“In April 2013, Martinez was arrested by ICE officers, but was later granted a Stay of Removal and released from custody on an Order of Supervision. He had been allowed to remain free from custody while exhausting all of his legal options,” Yong Yow said.
Martin and Julia then checked in with ICE regularly through 2016. Over that period, Maria Martinez worked on Maloney’s 2014 re-election campaign and as a scheduler and staff assistant in his district office.
‘This is where it gets crazy’
“It wasn’t until the election, November 2016, that we started to see drastic change in immigration policy,” Maria Martinez said. “Immigration policy is incredibly, incredibly difficult. It is very complicated. Not many people understand that.”
Yong Yaw said there are “many considerations” before arrests are made, which could lead to delays between when “a final order is issued and an arrest is executed.”
But she said ICE “no longer exempts classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”
Martin Martinez was told to report to ICE in April 2017. He did and at that meeting was told to come back with a one-way ticket to Mexico.
“So this is where it gets crazy,” Maria Martinez recalled.
She purchased her father a ticket, which included a layover in Orlando, Florida.
“We show up with the ticket, and ICE immediately thinks that my dad is trying to run away. They assume that my dad is trying to escape because of that layover. They decided to detain my dad once again. They arrested my dad, he was held in a detention center for seven days,” she said.
Maloney then got involved.
“We got wind of this and went into action. I went to the White House directly,” he said.
Maria Martinez also held a news conference in Manhattan. Her father was released in a week, but only on the grounds that ICE would deport him.
“I thought, ‘You know what? If we’re going to lose the battle, I might as well get on that plane with my dad and hold his hand and go with him,’” she said. She got ICE to agree to let him leave the country on his own by July 1 last year.
“I emailed the ICE director and I was basically like, ‘Listen, it is not convenient for me for my dad to run away. I myself work in government, I myself am not going to let that happen,’” she said.
On July 28, her mother left for Mexico, too, to be with her husband.
Martin Martinez had existing heart and liver problems and was a diabetic. When he worked in the U.S., he had health insurance through his employer and was getting regular checkups.
“After he was deported, he wasn’t able to get the medication that he needed in Mexico because, one, it was extremely expensive for him to afford it, and plus, they had no jobs over there,” his daughter said.
On Jan. 10 this year, he suffered a stroke. He died on Feb. 27.
Sharing the story
“He was a beautiful soul. I don’t know how to say it,” Maria Martinez said.
When asked if she thinks he would have received the medication he needed to survive had he been in the U.S., her response was emphatic: “100 percent.”
“The health care system in Mexico is such complete …” She paused. “I don’t even know why it exists if people can’t get it.”
Her mother is still in Mexico and is barred from re-entering the U.S. for 10 years.
“Honestly, this happened in February and my family was forced to grieve alone because my mom is in Mexico, and me and my brother had to leave a week later after my dad passed,” she said. “I wish I could be there for my mom. She can’t come with us and I can’t go because I can’t lose any more time in work and school.”
Martinez has found the strength now to be vocal about her struggle.
“It took me a while to tell my dad’s story. I needed time to myself to really take everything in. I’m surprised with myself that I’m not crying to you right now,” she said.
“When my dad was still with us, I told him, ‘People are going to remember your name.’”