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Interview with Roberto Martinez (1997)

Immigration and Human Rights
on the U.S. / Mexico Border

San Diego, California

Roberto Martinez is director of the U.S. / Mexico Border Program, an immigration law enforcement monitoring project of the American Friends Service Committee. In 1992, he became the first U.S. citizen to be honored as an International Human Rights Monitor by the international human rights organization Human Rights Watch. He has been a Chicano civil rights and human rights activist for the past 20 years. This interview was conducted (and edited) for In Motion Magazine in 1997 in San Diego by Nic Paget-Clarke.


In Motion Magazine: Is there a relationship between immigration and the "globalization" of the world's economies?

Roberto Martinez: Immigrant/refugee rights groups across the country are now moving in the direction of putting immigration in the context of a global economy, globalization, people on the move escaping poverty, hunger, civil war, and persecution. NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) kicked off that trend. When we testified at the NAFTA hearings we complained of why weren't they including immigration in the context of a financial free trade agreement. Why were they focusing on the free movement of merchandise but not on the free movement of people. Basically it's a labor issue.

California has always been impacted tremendously by immigration, not just by people from Mexico, but also by refugees and migrants from other countries. It's now estimated even by the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) that there are at least five million immigrants in the U.S. who are undocumented. California usually comes in with at least half of those immigrants, not only because of its juxtaposition to Baja California, but also it's a place where people can blend into cities like L.A. and San Francisco. There's about nine million in these cities and about a third are immigrants and refugees.

It is important that we begin addressing immigration within the context of a global economy. Globalization effects the United States because investments in other countries have impacts such as people leaving that country, the displacement of jobs, jobs moving in and out of a country.

Impacts on Human Rights / Militarization of the Border

California National Guard working with the Border Patrol.Roberto Martinez: Our office primarily focuses on human rights and nowhere is human rights more impacted than on the U.S.-Mexico border. These last few months have really been a hateful time for us especially with the shooting by the military of that 18-year-old, Ezequiel Hernandez, in Texas .

Right after that, other military operations were exposed, including here in California where National Guard troops have been out in camouflage, hiding in the brush on the pretext of looking for drugs and immigrants. In addition, Representative Jim Traficant (D- Ohio) has introduced legislation in the House to send 10,000 military troops in to California. This is in addition to 5,000 Border Patrol agents approved by Congress in April of this year. That's going to interrupt a lot of movement. It could eventually interfere with free trade because how long will Mexico put up with this confrontation by the military on the border.

For the first time since 1848, when the war with Mexico ended, we now have U.S. troops face to face with Mexican troops on the border. (Mexico has replaced its judicial police with Mexican troops.) There have already been many incursions, confrontations.

In Motion Magazine: These troops are in uniform?

Roberto Martinez: In uniform. Armed with M-16s. That's what they killed this boy with, an M-16 in the back. A U.S. citizen. This the third shooting by the U.S. military.

In 1992, they killed a day laborer crossing from Nogales, crossing from Mexico into the U.S. When the three laborers saw the U.S. troops they ran back towards Nogales and one of them was shot in the back three times. In fact it wasn't even an M-16, it was an AR-15. Many Border Patrol and National Guard troops are armed with high-power military automatic weapons.

Every month we hold a protest and a press conference about this increased militarization of the border. That's basically what this issue is about right now. It's the militarization of the border.

In Motion Magazine: How formal is the presence of troops on the border? Are the troops stationed in bases?

Roberto Martinez: There are bases in different areas. The JTF6 is based in Ft. Bliss, Texas, in El Paso - most of them work out of there. The Green Berets are operating in south Texas. And the National Guard are based out of Orange County (California).

In Motion Magazine: So what do they physically do?

Roberto Martinez: Originally the National Guard in California were supposed to supply back-up support. for drug searches and seizures at ports-of-entry. But I have taken pictures of them driving the Border Patrol vans and picking up undocumented people along the border. I've not only witnessed it several times but I've taken pictures of it. It came out in the L.A. Times a week ago where a reporter uncovered a clandestine operation between Mexicali and Yuma. There are maneuvers from San Diego to south Texas, troops dressed in camouflage, wearing nets with twigs, painted faces, back packs, M-16s and so on.

That's what's going on, but people aren't aware of it. We, average people, our lives are in danger when we come across troops accidentally while we're walking in the hills. We aren't even aware of this. Like that kid. He did what he did every day. He took his goats out to herd them, feed them. He carried his .22 for target practice and to guard the goats against animals. A team of Marines actually tracked him for a quarter of a mile. Then they shot him. He didn't know they were there. They should have known he was there because he did this every day, around six o'clock. But they still tracked him, an 18-year-old high school student.

The investigating agency, law enforcement, said the evidence is totally inconsistent with what the Marines are saying - such as the angle of the bullet in the boy. They've already subpoenaed the general in charge of that operation.

In Motion Magazine: That's was not the National Guard? It was the Marines?

Roberto Martinez: The U.S. Marines.

In Motion Magazine: What was the objective of that operation?

Roberto Martinez: Drugs. According to the Marines, they were guarding the routes that drug traffickers have been known to use from Mexico to the United States.

In Motion Magazine: So all of these operations' primary objective is drugs?

Roberto Martinez: Yes, but in the Traficant bill, they are very explicit that they also patrol the border for immigration as well as drugs.

Jobs, Raids and the Mexican Economy

Freeway warning sign.In Motion Magazine: Why are people moving across the border?

Roberto Martinez: It's still about jobs, though more and more it's also about family unification. People have immigrated, gotten their amnesty, and are sending for their families - wives, children. But it's still the lure of jobs. the demand for jobs. It's just like drugs. If there wasn't such a great demand for drugs in the United States, there probably wouldn't be any drug trafficking. Same with jobs, the United States created the immigration crisis by sending for, inviting, people to come and work here in the United States. There's still a big demand for cheap labor. In California we have a $30 billion agri-business which wouldn't even exist without cheap labor over the years from Mexico, the Japanese, the Filipinos and others who all came here to build agribusiness.

Immigrants built our railroads. They worked our mines.

The U.S. contracted with Mexicans to come to work here in the '30s and '40s and '50s. Then the xenophobia started, the scapegoating, and you had massive raids and deportations of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans. U.S. citizens and legal residents as well as undocumented were all sent to Mexico in the '30s and '40s and '50s. I was part of that.

In the '50s during Operation Wetback, and even though I'm a fifth generation U.S. citizen, right on these streets around here I used to be stopped on the way home from school, or visiting my girlfriend, or going downtown. The police used to smack me up against the wall and call the Border Patrol -- and they used to try and deport me. At least every other week. They used to take me out of jobs, after school jobs, in restaurants, hotels.. I was part of that in the '50s.

You keep hearing people like Brian Bilbray (U. S. Rep. R-Del Mar, California) or the President say we have to play by the rules. How come they didn't play by the rules? They keep saying this is a country of laws. Where were the laws when people like me were being arrested and they tried to deport me?

Where are the laws now? When U.S. citizens are coming across the border, their documents are being confiscated, they are being forbidden from entering the country. Even though they are born here. Right now, as I speak, we've got three law suits going in north county where police and Border Patrol are breaking into people's homes without search warrants. This is under the pretext of looking for drugs or illegals. Then they beat up the people, mace them, put bogus charges on them Then they have to go to court. Why aren't they playing by the rules?

In other words, we have a double standard in this country. We always have. For Chicanos like me, for 150 years there's been institutionalized racism and violence. And it's still happening. Next year we are going to mark the 150th anniversary of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (editor's note: the treaty signed by the U.S. and Mexico after the U.S./Mexico War. As a result of the war the northern half of Mexico became the southwestern part of the U.S.). We're still fighting the same racism, the same xenophobia, the same scapegoating.

In Motion Magazine: What's the objective of these house raids?

Roberto Martinez: Searching for drugs and undocumented people. There's parts of Oceanside with big barrios of Mexican people. And a lot of them are undocumented, but they don't know this, they just suspect there might be a house full of undocumented. They lump us all together, we are all suspects. We're all illegal immigrants, criminals or drug traffickers.

If those bills pass we're going to have occupied cities along the border. Where are you going to put 10,000 troops? Plus 10,000 Border Patrol agents. And that's just those two. Local law enforcement is now authorized to work with federal agents. In many parts of the border, like in east county, you can see national guard, sheriffs, Border Patrol all on Hiway 94.

This has already been authorized by legislation.

In Motion Magazine: This is an increase in the use of the military?

Roberto Martinez: A tremendous increase since the 1980s.

In Motion Magazine: Does this correspond with an increase in the development of the maquiladoras?

Roberto Martinez: It's related more to the continued devaluation of the peso. Particularly when Zedillo took over and thrust Mexico into a tremendous depression. There's been a lot of political upheaval, but primarily it's the poverty to the south. We are seeing an increase of people coming from Mexico and other parts of the world.

The value of the peso is going down, while the prices are going up. Salaries are not growing with inflation. People cannot afford to feed their families. We're seeing more and more families coming north. A good measurement is we're seeing ten times more women crossing at the ports-of-entry with fraudulent documents so they don't have to cross through the hills because it's very dangerous there. Women are being raped and disappearing. They are taking to using fraudulent documents.

Under U.S. attorney Alan Bersin's new 1326 program against illegal entry, migrant women are being prosecuted and sent en masse to Las Vegas and other areas where they are spending 6 to 8 weeks before they go to court. There's a lot of pain caused by the separation from their children and husbands. We get calls all the time: "What happened to my wife? She tried to cross the border using fraudulent documents." They hold women for weeks some times before allowing them to call home, or anywhere. It's a very sad part of this whole situation.

This current operation, Operation Gatekeeper, which concentrates border agents in San Ysidro, is forcing migrants to cross further east, a very dangerous area in the mountains. In January alone about 17 men and women died in the cold, the snow and rain. It's creating a whole new human rights problem for us.

We've also been doing a lot of studies on the Mexican side of migrants who have been deported, from Tijuana all the way to Mexicali. More and more migrants are even crossing in the desert. This summer there's been a lot of people dying in the desert because of the push to the east, the militarization.


In Motion Magazine: How would you change the laws?

Roberto Martinez: Two things. First we have to get control of the human rights problem. We need better training of the agents so they won't abuse the migrants. Several of them have been indicted recently for rape, beatings and so on. Fortunately, we haven't had any shootings here since the early nineties.

Secondly, once we get the human rights issue under control we need to revisit our immigration laws. We have three to five million undocumented migrants in the U.S. and we have to look at the whole amnesty issue all over again. We have to find ways that people can cross to the U.S. and work legally. That's something that has to be agreed on by immigrants rights groups as well as by Congressional leaders and immigration authorities. Sooner or later they are going to have to revisit the whole amnesty issue.

They've just finished passing a new immigration reform responsibility act. But all it did is make it harder to immigrate. Now, even if you're a U.S. citizen or legal resident you can't automatically immigrate your family. The question now is one of being able to support your family. You have to be able to make a certain amount of money, 70 to 125% of the poverty level. You can only immigrate your parents. A son or daughter can't be over 21. There's a whole set of restrictions now that are making it twice as hard to immigrate your family members. And yet they talk about family unity.

Also, they've eliminated waivers and due-process. People seeking asylum can be ajudicated right at the border. The INS has offices now at the airports. If they don't believe you, or you don't have a strong case for amnesty or asylum, they just send you back to the country you came from.

There's a wave of illegal immigration because people are desperate to come here to work. Other people are desperate because they are fleeing persecution. There's still a lot of human rights problems around the world. People are going to continue to come here.


It's estimated that 40% of the people who enter illegally cross through the borders. The majority of people enter the country legally and over-stay their visas. And yet 85 to 90% of the enforcement is at the border.

In Motion Magazine: Why is that?

Roberto Martinez: Because of the rhetoric and because of the distortion of the truth that there's an invasion at the Mexican border of the U.S. It's just a lot of scare tactics that they use to justify increasing the border militarization. And people buy into it.

In Motion Magazine: Immigration is politicized during political campaigns, or whenever there's an opportunity?

Roberto Martinez: Oh absolutely.

In Motion Magazine:How much of that is opportunism, and how much of it is actually related to economic policy?

Roberto Martinez: There have been many studies that show that immigrants don't take jobs away from Americans. They actually contribute more than they take out in terms of services . The enormous economic contributions in the billions of dollars, taxes, federal and state, actually completely offset what ever are used in services. Migrants do use services but not to the extent that they say.

These are campaigns based on misinformation and distortion of the truth. Ofcourse there are counter-studies on the side of the people who want to blame immigrants. The most notorious one is out of Rice University, by a guy named Donald Huddle. He puts one out, then the Urban Institute puts out another one to counter that. You hear both sides, but when you hear (California Governor) Pete Wilson talk, or some of these right-wingers who want to blame immigrants, they use Huddle's study not the Urban Institute's.

But the fact remains that immigrants do contribute to our economy and revitalize our communities. They create jobs for Americans through their entrepeneurship, mostly in small businesses. Opponents to migrants haven't yet been able to show concretely where immigrants displace Americans from their jobs. I've been reading in the papers about the sweeps around the country, particularly in the midwest and they claim they've got to make room for Americans but Americans aren't going to work in meat-packing in Iowa and Nebraska where they make these sweeps.

I used to have an office in Oceanside in the middle "80s. At that time I was working with the farm workers to register people for amnesty. In the same time frame, Howard Ezell was the western regional INS director based in L.A. He ordered massive raids on the farms and at race tracks in Del Mar and Santa Anita. He concentrated on the Riverside county and Orange county areas. He must have had four or five thousand undocumented workers rounded up. He displayed them on the side of the freeway (I have pictures of it) showing this is why we don't have jobs in America and this is why we don't need amnesty. He called it Operation Jobs, and once they were all deported he sent out job notices to replace the deported workers. He sent notices to colleges, unemployment offices, anywhere where people needed jobs. And people came out. They signed up for these jobs.

The first ones to go were the ones who went to work out on the farms, 8 or 10 hours a day, stooped over in the hot sun. They didn't last even a week. The ones at the race-track who cleaned out horse stalls didn't last two weeks. Ezell had to eat crow by making deals with these employers that they could get their workers back and that the Border Patrol couldn't raid those farms and racetracks anymore. You should have heard all the complaints by these employers. Following that, the growers complained to Pete Wilson about these raids on the farms and he had to make a legal agreement that he wouldn't raid the farms during harvesting time. This was all in the media. They need the workers.

I have interviewed farm workers in north county and at the border and they tell me that when they cross in groups the Border Patrol stops them and ask them where they are going. If they say they are going to Los Angeles or San Francisco they put them in the van. If they say they are going to north county to pick strawberries, because they need workers there, they'll let them go. They get to go free. This tells you what a political football immigration is. And that's why the Border Patrol is against having the military at the border. Not only is it possible that the military might replace them, but also they are not going to be able to allow these workers through where they need them here in north county or Salinas, or Fresno. It's a labor issue.

Soldiers: U.S. and Mexican

U.S. / Mexico border.In Motion Magazine: So why are they spending money to put troops on the border then?

Roberto Martinez: This is political grand-standing by people like Traficant, and Hunter (U. S. Rep. R-San Diego), and Bilbray -- any one who wants to become president or who wants recognition. They are responding to a non-existent crisis.

In Motion Magazine: It takes a lot of money to put 10,000 troops on the border.

Roberto Martinez: That's right. That's part of the problem. But the real big problem is these troops were not trained for immigration or interacting with civilians. They were trained for battle. For combat. For search and destroy. The boy is an example. They left that boy out there, after they shot him. He laid out there for 20 to 30 minutes bleeding to death. They didn't have any first-aid on them. They didn't have any medics with them like they do in combat. They had to wait for the Border Patrol to call the paramedics. By then the boy had bled to death. That's the kind of people they are going to have out there on the border.

In Motion Magazine: There's a conflict between the Border Patrol and the troops?

Roberto Martinez: Supposedly. It's kind of mixed. On the one hand the Border Patrol know the soldiers are out there and they haven't said anything. On the other hand, and this is ironic, the one leading the campaign against putting the military on the border -- and I've got faxes here from the El Paso area, Congressman Silvester Reyes from El Paso -- used to be chief Border Patrol agent for the Border Patrol in El Paso. His brain child was that hold-the-line operation. He's leading the fight against putting the military on the border. He even states on his press release that the shooting of the boy shows they are not trained for that. What you are going to have on the border is military troops trained for combat, for war, to kill -- not to help or save.

In Motion Magazine: Why has the Mexican government replaced their police with soldiers?

Roberto Martinez: Because of corruption and abuses by the judiciales. You can't trust them. They are bought out easily by the drug traffickers and allowed to move freely around. The assassinations tell you that, right and left. Anybody who starts complaining or protesting or investigating the cartels, they are eliminated.

In Motion Magazine: There seems to be a lot of shooting going on in Tijuana these days.

Roberto Martinez: Incredibly. They haven't seen anything like this. I haven't. I've lived here all my life and I've never seen anything like this.

In Motion Magazine: What's with these cross-border shootings? Usually coming from Mexico.

Roberto Martinez: The suspicion of the Border Patrol and the U.S. attorney is that they are probably drug traffickers. However, they caught one guy and they say he's ex-judicial. They found him with firearms -- it's illegal to own firearms in Mexico. They found him with illegal firearms, and shells, similar to those that were found along the freeway that there was shooting from. It's hard to say.

In Motion Magazine: How many instances have there been?

Roberto Martinez: I think since May 17, there's been about six (2 month period).

In Motion Magazine: Shooting at the Border Patrol?

Roberto Martinez: Specifically at the Border Patrol.

Filling a Need for Labor

In Motion Magazine: So, there's people moving across the border for work. There's a struggle for control of drug trafficking in Tijuana. What else is going on?

Roberto Martinez: There's people wanting to join up with their families here in the U.S. I've interviewed a lot of them and they have jobs waiting. There's a need there and they are filling it. It's about jobs and family unity. One person pay get a job at the meat-packing company in Iowa, and they get calls from over there saying they need people. People even are going to Hawai'i. There's a big movement of legal workers from north county being recruited to Hawai'i. The young Hawaiians don't want to work in the fields anymore, planting and picking pineapples. They are moving up, going to college, more lucrative jobs, less dirty. So there's been been recruitment of farm workers from Carlsbad, Encinitas to go work in Hawai'i. They get free transportation, free housing, everything they need. There isn't a state right now where there aren't undocumented workers. There's a need for them.

The growers, if they had to comply with fair labor laws of the state of California, pay a minimum wage and benefits, vacations, everything they pay a U.S. citizen, they'd go broke. Here they have farmworkers that they can work as many hours as they want, or as few hours as they want. They don't pay them benefits, vacations, sick leave, insurance, medical, nothing. They just work by the hour, that's it. If they don't like it, even if they are legal workers, they are fired and replaced by an undocumented worker. You drive around north county especially along Camino Real and see day laborers often by the hundreds, waiting for work. Undocumented, and documented.

It's estimated there's at least 14,000 farmworkers in San Diego county. There's areas where you can see big groups of day laborers standing out on the corner waiting for work. Unfortunately a lot of the growers are closing shop and moving down south into Baja California, Mexico, to Rosarito. There's a big valley down there where they grow tomatoes and strawberries as year-round crops. That's where a lot of them are going. They get their labor from Oaxaca and Chiapas, all the poorer parts of Mexico. They've got huge camps where the conditions are just appalling. Comparable to what we have in some parts of north county, the migrant camps where people live out in the canyons.

In Motion Magazine: So even within Mexico there's a worker flow?

Roberto Martinez: Exploitation of the indigenous.

Discrimination in Immigration Enforcement

In Motion Magazine: Looking at immigration into the U.S. as a whole, is there discrimination in the application of the laws? A lot of people came here from the old Soviet bloc. How did they fare?

Roberto Martinez: They've assimilated. We have a double standard here. Let me give you another example. We have a long unprotected border with Canada. It's twice as long as the Mexican border -- it's almost 4,000 miles long. You don't see steel walls like we have here. You don't see stadium lights like we have here. You don't see National Guard. You don't see thousands and thousands of Border Patrol agents. You don't have Operation Gatekeeper, yet thousands of undocumented workers from Europe, Canada, from Ireland cross that border. I have Irish human rights counterparts that I've worked with up in the northeastern states that tell me that when the Border Patrol raids construction sites they take only the people who have brown skin. They tell me there are dozens of illegal Irish working on a construction site, but they don't ask them for their papers. If you are a white European immigrant you can assimilate a lot easier than somebody with brown skin who stands out. That's the racist part of immigration law.

If you get on the Amtrak here and head for Los Angeles, the Border Patrol gets on the train. The only ones they are going to question are Mexican, people who look Mexican.

In Motion Magazine: They question people on trains?

Roberto Martinez: Oh yes, for a long time now. I ride the train to L.A. They not only get on the Amtrak, they get on the trolley here going back and forth to Tijuana. They get on the buses. They are all over the place. At the airport, the bus station, they are everywhere. I see them all the time. I see them questioning people.

I had one person call me, a businessman from Tijuana who was here legally, with a visa, at the airport, and he was reading a magazine. An agent came up to him and said "Let me see your papers". "Why?" "Where were you born?" "Mexico, but I have papers." The businessman asked why did you question me. He said because you are reading a Spanish language magazine. He was so furious. But we have always been the ones who are stopped, for generations, because we are Latino or Mexican.

Police Powers

New wall on U.S./Mexico borderIn Motion Magazine: How many people are in the Border Patrol?

Roberto Martinez: Right now it's estimated between six and seven thousand. Five thousand on the border at least. Here in San Diego alone we have 2,200. In San Diego we are boxed in. We have checkpoints all around. You can't leave San Diego county without going though a checkpoint. Highway 94, I-8, I-15, I-5. In San Clemente, with the new construction it's starting to look like the San Ysidro point-of-entry. Like another border crossing. You can't leave San Diego county -- not by plane, not by bus, not by car. They might as well move the whole border up to L.A.

In Motion Magazine: A special economic zone.

The Border Patrol is part of the INS, right? What is the relationship?

Roberto Martinez: They work hand in hand. Though there is movement for them to be a separate entity. And yet the new regional director is being taken up from the Border Patrol. It used to be an appointed position, you didn't have to have a law enforcement background, or immigration background. Harold Ezell was a regional director before he was the chief Border Patrol agent for San Diego. He was a businessman, in fact he owned a Weinerschnitzel franchise. (President) Reagan appointed him INS regional director. Chief McNary was the INS commissioner before Doris Meisner. He ran a shoe business somewhere in Missouri. Not anymore, Misner is a career INS, he came up through the ranks. All the regional directors (western, central, eastern) are all Border Patrol chiefs. They are really tightening it up. They don't want any more of these appointee-type people. They want people with law enforcement backgrounds.

In Motion Magazine: Are Border Patrol agents armed?

Roberto Martinez: Oh yes. All of them are armed. They all carry weapons.

In Motion Magazine: Even the non-uniformed ones?

Roberto Martinez: Even the undercover ones. They have sidearms.

In Motion Magazine: So there's 10,000 armed people running around questioning and stopping people.

Roberto Martinez: Right. and you never know when they are going to stop you.

I want to cover one more area. The police are working with the Border Patrol and enforcing immigration. I've been meeting this week with groups around this issue in Oceanside. I was telling you about the raids on the homes, police will even stop cars on the pretext of a traffic violation, ask people for their papers.

In Motion Magazine: That is unconstitutional?

Roberto Martinez: No it's not unconstitutional, it's just that in San Diego we formed a pact several years ago between rights groups -- people like myself, the ACLU (American Civil liberties Union), the Chicano Federation -- with the police department here in San Diego to not cooperate with the Border Patrol. We wanted Mexican people, Latinos, not to be afraid to call the police if they wanted to report a crime.

At the time we made the agreement, 1986, the police would investigate a crime, somebody being robbed, or something domestic, and the first thing police would do is ask them for their papers. If they said I don't have any, they'd call the Border Patrol, rather than investigate the crime.

I got fed up with it and formed a coalition. The chief formally accepted this as a writen policy. But they have been violating the agreement off and on, off and on. Now it's getting back to like they didn't even have a policy. Just harassing people.

For example, recently I had to file a complaint and threaten a lawsuit. Day laborers with papers were standing out on Linda Vista road in front of a big parking lot, a Mac Donald's and a grocery store. The police actually surrounded the day laborers and then called the Border Patrol. When the day laborers started running the police blocked the exits with their cars. It was really chaotic.

I interviewed the day laborers. I wrote a letter to the police chief. "What's happening? Why are you doing this? It's a public safety issue and a violation of our agreement. These cops don't know if these are legal day laborers or illegal day laborers. They put a stop to it. This was only a few weeks ago.

Every once in a while these guys act like cowboys. It's a daily battle. There isn't a day goes by that I don't get a complaint from somewhere.

"Even before 1848, lands were taken away ..."

In Motion Magazine: Can you tell me more about yourself and the U.S. Mexico Border Program?

Roberto Martinez: I'm director of the U.S. Mexico Border Program for the American Friends Service Committee here in San Diego. I've been doing border work for 15 years but I've been involved in Chicano rights, civil rights, for 25 years. It's always been a part of my life. I grew up, as I mentioned before, fighting for my rights, to be treated equally, which we don't feel we have. In fact we call ourselves Chicanos precisely because it's a political term, because we were neither Mexican nor treated as U.S. citizens. Our rights were never respected. We had to create our own identity. Because people like me, fifth or sixth generation, weren't born in Mexico. My great, great grandparents came from Texas and they lived there before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. In other words like we say a lot "we didn't cross the border, the border crossed us." Our rights were never respected.

They broke the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo right from day one. Lands were taken away, people were chased into Mexico. There were massacres of Mexicans in the U.S. back in the turn of the century. One of the biggest massacres was in Norias in south Texas in 1915 where over 300 Mexican U.S. citizens were massacred by Texas Rangers in retaliation for something that happened somewhere else. It's in the history books.

There's always been persecution of Mexicans in the U.S. since even before 1848. As settlers swept across the country they took away land, took over mines, took over everything. We basically ended up, our people, my great grandparents, more like indentured servants working for people on the land that they used to own. It was taken away from them by fraud, by deceit, or by legal means. My great grandparents and grandparents weren't allowed to go to school. They didn't want them to learn how to do math or speak English, and defend themselves.

We basically went through what the African Americans went through. There were signs up until the 1950s and `60s on restaurants I've seen them. Regular metal signs printed in shops said "No Mexicans or dogs allowed". Those existed way into the `60s. Segregation of schools existed up until the 1960s. Mexican schools and white schools.. We have our history.

In California the campaigns have come in cycles. The '30s, the '40s, the '50s, the '60s -- whenever they are looking for scape goats to explain all the social and economic problems, unemployment. It has continued straight through the '90s.

For example with Operation Wetback in the '60s the debate started again. Back then in the '60s and '70s the INS Commissioner, Chapman, an ex-Marine Commandant , began publicizing "massive invasions of illegals into the United States, estimated at 8 to 12 million in the U.S." He called on Congress for 200,000 troops for border patrol, equal to the amount of troops in the U.S., to be put on the border. This debate led to the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 - Simpson-Mazzoli.

And here we go again in the 1990s , the same thing. Every ten years. And the Mexicans are the scape goats. Where it's all going to end? Who knows? We may end up with 10,000 troops on the border, on top of the 10,000 Border Patrol agents. On top of the local police. We could very well see occupied cities at the beginning of the next century.

Triple Fences Along the Border

In Motion Magazine: Could you talk about the triple fence they are building?

Roberto Martinez: They call it the Duncan Hunter Memorial Fence. It's an ugly sight. If you go down in front of the levee it's a pretty ugly site. It's worse than the Berlin Wall in some respects. I've seen it publicized that Duncan calls the border a DMZ zone. He compares it to the DMZ zone between north and south Korea.

In Motion Magazine: Who is he?

Roberto Martinez: Duncan Hunter, a Congressman from here in San Diego, a republican. He's probably been the most vocal for militarization of the border, triple fences. It's basically to discourage people from crossing the fence. At this point I think it's only going to be on the west side of the port-of-entry, from the levee to the ocean. It'll be about four or five miles long. That's all they've got money for, $20 million. It was incorporated in the last federal immigration bill.

In Motion Magazine: Can it work? If the border is that long and the fence is only 5 miles?

Roberto Martinez: Well, a 5 mile fence on a 2,000 mile border? There's no fences in the east county. People are still going to cross. But it's going to create more human rights problems in terms of more deaths as more people cross further east through the mountains and the desert..

We have a study that just came out collaborated on by the American Friends Service Committee and the University of Houston. It shows how many people have died crossing the border from 1993 to 1996. This study shows that 1185 people died crossing the border in that period. Over 500 in Texas alone, by drowning and desert. In California 300 to 400. The rest in Arizona and New Mexico. It's a very tragic situation on the border. It's going to get worse with the military operations and the triple fencing.

Human Rights

In Motion Magazine: What is the situation here with human rights work?

The American Friends Service Commitee / U.S. Mexico Border Program is a national project with offices all along the border, but ours is the only full-time human rights office.

Human rights is developing around the world. But human rights work is still very dangerous. I have received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, the White Aryan Resistance, from the militia. I've had my office broken into. I've had to move my office twice, my home once.

Recently in Mexico several human rights people were executed. People are disappearing around Mexico, Columbia. The more you protest, the more visible you are, the more likely you are going to be threatened. I don't worry about myself as much as I do my staff and my family.

When you criticize people like the Border Patrol and the police ... . Even among themselves they are not safe. I have cases right now where police and Border Patrol have criticized their administrators or the way people are treated and they get death threats even among their own selves. I've gotten calls from within the Border Patrol and the INS.

I'll give you a case. Last year, five undocumented workers crossed the border and were on the border in the Tijuana River. Six Border Patrol agents caught up to them and were throwing rocks at them in the water. One of them hit a migrant in the head and knocked him out. The other migrants dragged him out of the water and they reported it to the police. The police came and reported it to the Border Patrol administrators in Chula Vista. They questioned the five Border Patrol agents and the rookie, the lowest one in seniority, turned in the others. He said "yes they did it." His life was a living hell. They slashed his tires, they wrecked his car, put dead rats in his locker, wrote death threats. This was in the paper. The chief Border Patrol agent had to transfer him to the Canadian border for his own protection. So you can imagine. If they will do that to one of their own ... what will they do to migrants?

But I do want to say that this anti-immigration legislation and campaign has really galvinized the Latino community. We're a lot more organizaed and unified nationwide, statewide, locally, to fight this campaign against immigrants.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 14, 1997.

Also see:

  • Interview with Roberto Martinez (2001)
    One of the greatest human rights tragedies in the history of the U. S.
    Border operations / Migrant life / Organizing for human rights
    San Diego, California
    Published in In Motion Magazine - December 4, 2001

  • Interview with Maria Jimenez (2001)
    “We must not equate immigration with terrorism”
    Houston, Texas
    Published in In Motion Magazine - November 11, 2001

  • Immigration Issues (index of articles)