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Immigrants search for better life and understanding

Posted on February 14, 2012
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Jorge Islas-Martinez sometimes stares at the underbelly of a passing train and wonders how he survived.

“I hid underneath it,” he recalled. “Suddenly, the train started to move. The only thing I could do is hang on.”

Inches off the ground, the man who now calls Whitewater home clung to the cold mass of pulsing steel in the darkness. He prayed hard as the train picked up speed into California.

“I thought about my mother, my brothers,” he said. “I thought I would die.”

More than 25 years later, he recounted the harrowing details of eluding immigration officers at the border in Tijuana, Mexico.

“It seemed like hours and hours underneath that train,” Islas-Martinez said. “I had my eyes closed. When the train stopped, I crawled out, and I could not feel my body. I was so scared. My heart was pounding.”

Since his dangerous journey to the United States, Islas-Martinez has come a long way. Today, he is a United States citizen who works as a translator, teacher and bill collector. He volunteers widely in his community and owns a home. He also is a vocal activist for immigration reform.

Although he came earlier, Islas-Martinez is part of a dynamic ethnic group that accounted for more than half of the nation’s growth from 2000 to 2010.

Locally, Hispanics are changing the face of many communities. From 2000 to 2010, Rock County’s Hispanic population more than doubled to make up 7.6 percent of the population. In Walworth County, the Hispanic population is up 72 percent and totals more than 10 percent of the population.

But statistics do not tell the human story of how Hispanics are transforming the nation’s diverse fabric.

People do.

All immigrants arrive with unique backgrounds that offer insight into their lives. Their histories shed light on why Mexicans have risked everything to enter the United States.

“Know me; know my story,” Islas-Martinez said emphatically. “Don’t feel sorry for immigrants. Try to understand them.”

Islas-Martinez’s parents separated when he was 8 years old. Alone, his mother fed six of her own children and four young cousins. She took in laundry and ironing while they lived in a crowded two-room house in Mexico City.

“Sometimes, she had only enough food for the children, and she did not eat,” Islas-Martinez said. “We used to see her crying.”

Still, his mother never pulled her children out of school to work. She encouraged them to get good grades, and she set a strong example. She set aside her endless chores to walk many blocks to night school to finish the sixth grade. Young Islas-Martinez went with her so she would not have to walk home alone. He was in the fifth grade.

The child excelled in school. As a young man, he studied medicine. Often, he pored over books in the bathroom because it was the quietest room in the small home, where 11 people lived and everyone slept in the same bedroom.

But Islas-Martinez could not afford many things, including books. His older brother helped him financially until he died of cancer. Then Islas-Martinez realized he could not continue his studies because of the cost.

When a friend stopped by his house to say he was leaving for the United States, Islas-Martinez decided to go with him.

“I wanted something better for my family,” he said. “I told my mother I was leaving. She told me to think about it. I did not say goodbye to anyone at school. I went to school on Thursday and never returned Friday.”

Islas-Martinez hopped a bus from Mexico City to the border town of Tijuana. Then, following the lead of his friends, the 20-year-old climbed over a high fence that separated him from the United States and the promise of opportunity. His friends scattered when immigration officials shined flashlights at them.

“I did not know who to follow,” Islas-Martinez said. “I hid under a stationary train and whispered my friend’s name. Suddenly, the train started moving. The only thing I could do is hang on.”

When the train stopped, he climbed off somewhere in California, reconnected with two friends and walked until they came to an airport.

“We got on a plane to Los Angeles,” he said. “I did not know where I was or where I was going.”

If he had known what was going to happen at the border, he never would have made the life-threatening journey.

“I thought it was going to be like a game of hide-and-seek,” Islas-Martinez said. “I think 99 percent of immigrants don’t know what they will face. I tell them they will risk their lives. They might die in the desert or drown crossing the river. The only thing we have in mind is that we are coming here for a better life.”

Islas-Martinez knows what he did is illegal.

“I did not hurt anyone,” he said. “I did not kill anyone. We are forgetting that an immigrant is a human, and every human has the right to succeed. There is no law that says you cannot succeed because you are from another country. I wanted something better for my family.”

He paused.

“We always think about the lives of our families,” he said. “If we cross the border illegally, there is a reason. There is always a reason. Ask any immigrant why they come here without documents, and I bet every single story will be worse than mine.”

He added:

“It is wrong when people call us ‘illegal immigrants.’ We are immigrants without proper documents. When you say ‘illegal,’ people think the worst. They think we are hardcore criminals.”

Islas-Martinez traveled to Wisconsin when a friend told him he could make money in a canning company. He labored up to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, during peak season. He also worked packing eggs and picking apples. He toiled to support himself and to send money to his struggling mother in Mexico.

But Islas-Martinez did not enjoy the work.

“It was the only job I could do because I did not know the language,” he said. “Sometimes, people are abused, physically and verbally, in those jobs. If the workers say something, employers threaten them with deportation. The workers have no rights.”

Once, when Islas-Martinez worked as a forklift driver, he got hydraulic fluid in his eyes. He needed time off from work, so his employer put him in a dark room and told him to stay there until the end of every day until his eyes recovered, Islas-Martinez said.

“There’s a lot of injustice when you don’t have your documents,” he said. “You are scared to speak up. But you are glad because you are making dollars and helping your family.”

Like so many other Mexicans who crossed to El Norte, he sent money home.

Eventually, Islas-Martinez went to school and learned English well.

Some years later, while he was working full time on a farm, a friend helped him become a legal resident under an amnesty program. In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which gave legal status to 3 million immigrants in the United States without legal papers.

But Islas-Martinez wanted more.

He studied how the U.S. government works, learned the country’s history and memorized “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On June 28, 2000, he took an oath of loyalty to the United States and became a citizen.

“I’m proud of this country,” he said. “I became a citizen so my vote can be heard.”

Life in the United States is not what he expected.

“When I was in Mexico, I thought the United States was a country that was shining all the time,” Islas-Martinez said. “I thought there was no pain, no suffering and no injustice. I thought there were no poor people. But when I came here, I noticed there were lots of lights off. People were suffering. They were sleeping on the streets. There were injustices.”

Today, Islas-Martinez volunteers on the board of directors of the Milwaukee-based Voces de la Frontera, an immigration-rights group. He also serves on the board of directors of the Office of Justice Assistance. He is president of Sigma America, a nonprofit program in Whitewater that helps the community. He also volunteers at Whitewater’s St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

“The reason I help others today is because I don’t want people to be taken advantage of,” he said. “Even when I am tired, I make time for others.”

He has seen some of his dreams come true.

“I have been able to help my family,” he said. “I have given my mother a different life. I have the opportunity to help my brothers and others.”

Islas-Martinez petitioned the U.S. government so his mother could live in the United States. She entered the country as a legal permanent resident in 2004.

Ever since coming to Wisconsin, Islas-Martinez has worked three or four jobs to support himself and his mother. His favorite job is teaching English to immigrants.

“I get a lot of satisfaction when I see people leave class with smiles on their faces,” he said. “I can see the lights come on as they are learning.”

He still has brothers in Mexico and would like to help them become legal permanent residents of the United States.

The government has a huge backlog of visa requests from Mexicans wanting to come to the United States and grants only a limited number every year.

“It can take years to get the visas,” Islas-Martinez said. “Maybe that day will never come.”

Meanwhile, his family remains separated.

“On the outside, you can look at immigrants and see them smiling,” he said. “But on the inside, we are broken hearted because we are so many miles from our families. For 25 years, there has always been someone missing at the dinner table.

“I dream that one day I will be like Jesus, and I will have my last supper with my whole family.”

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