Valeria Martinez is losing her dad for the third time. She watched in disbelief as the immigration judge ordered Martin Alvarez Martinez deported again. Before being able to even say goodbye, she was escorted out of the courtroom crying, her 2-year old daughter wailing in her arms. An only child who has already lost her mother to cancer, it’s almost more than she can bear. But for the sake of her daughter, she knows she has to be strong and do everything she can to keep her father in the U.S.
Valeria was 4 when Martin left the first time. It was 1997, and he traveled north from Mexico City to Colorado to earn more money and send it back to his wife and daughter at home.
“We didn’t have much communication since he was so far away,” Valeria says. “He was working two jobs at a time so he never had time to call us.”
A few years later, Martin’s father passed away and he went home, reuniting with his wife and daughter. When he decided to return to work in Colorado, Martin couldn’t leave Valeria and her mother behind. The journey was long, hot and scary, Valerie says. But the family made it back to Aurora together in 2000. For the next several years her mother worked in restaurant kitchens and at a senior center. Her dad also worked in different kitchens and developed a passion for cooking, with dreams of one day being head chef in his own restaurant.
But it wasn’t the end of challenges for the young family. Around 2005 Martin was found sleeping in his truck and charged with a DUI.
“He was not putting anyone in endangerment,” Valeria says. “He was just parked in our parking lot and he fell asleep in the truck.” Valeria and her mom didn’t find out what was going on until they heard he was in immigration detention. With lack of counsel or the resources to fight his case, Martin eventually signed his own voluntary departure papers and was returned to Mexico.
Valeria doesn’t try and justify her father’s mistake, but says he has also changed a lot since then. Only in middle school at the time, she didn’t know how to help Martin fight the criminal case, and she’s frustrated that no one else did either.
“We have an immigrant community, specifically Latino community, that continues to fall victim to lack of information,” says Elaine Cintron a lawyer with Lichter Immigration in Denver, a firm that specializes in immigration law and removal defense. “And by the time they reach out to community organizations or advocates that can help in their cause, they’re running against a deportation machine that works quite quickly.”
Although familiar with the details of Martin’s case, Cintron is not representing the family. She does say that there are many aspects to his story, however, that make her stop and question what would have happened if Martin had proper legal counsel.
Could a lawyer have changed the verdict on his DUI charge, arguing that he wasn’t driving at the time of his arrest? Would a lawyer have advised him not to sign the voluntary departure? In the end, the DUI conviction gave him a criminal record, which made him a deportation priority. Even then, would a lawyer have advised him to fight his deportation rather than sign his voluntary departure?
“The biggest thing [is] people don’t know what’s going on,” Cintron says. “And then they have systems that work against them. …
“You’re fighting against a machine, especially when the person has entered without permission,” Cintron continues. “You’re carrying the burden and you’re facing a judge, a government attorney, and they have endless resources at this point compared to what you have.”
So Martin returned to Mexico City while Valeria and her mother stayed in Aurora. Only a few months later, however, the family received more devastating news. Valeria’s mother was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, which eventually spread to her brain, hips and heart.
“My mom still found a way to work to take care of me until my dad figured out a way to come back here,” Valeria says. “It’s been hard because my dad never left us alone, or [told us to] figure it out.”
With multiple surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy and radiation in the his wife’s future, Martin returned to the U.S., once again without permission from the government. For the next several years Valeria would take care of her mom after school, and then when Martin got off work, he would take over.
But in 2011, at the age of 33, Valeria’s mom lost her battle with cancer.
“My dad had a really hard time about it but he went back to work,” she says. “And it was really hard on me because that’s all the family I had.”
Martin worked 14 or more hours a day while Valeria, who was only 16, started ditching school and “making wrong choices,” she says. But seeing that his daughter was having a difficult time, the two started spending as much time as possible together and they moved into their own home as opposed to a shared living situation.
When Valeria finished high school, Martin hired a lawyer to help her apply for the federal Differed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, allowing her to obtain work authorization and live without fear of deportation.
“He never gave up on me, he’s always been so supportive,” she says. “Even when I got pregnant at a young age, he’s always given me tons of support. He’s been there unconditionally for me and my daughter.”
Valeria gave birth to a baby girl, Aleynah, in 2014 and she continued to live with Martin, who took his role as grandfather seriously.
“It’s an indescribable bond that they have,” Valeria says. “He’s like her dad. He’s so close to her. He comes home from work tired but she’s up waiting for him and she gets so happy.”
Martin worked extra so Valeria could stay home with Aleynah more. When she starting working two days a week, Martin took care of Aleynah.
But then in late April of this year, Martin was pulled over while driving. Valeria says the police officer never gave him a reason for the traffic stop, but rather simply demanded his license and registration. Not able to obtain a driver’s license without documentation, Martin was arrested on the spot and Valeria paid a $1,000 bond to get him released.
Three weeks later, on May 10, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took Martin away from his daughter and granddaughter.
“It was almost about to be 6 o’clock in the morning and we were all sleeping,” Valeria says. “My [cousin] was living with us at the time and he never thought about it, he just automatically opened the door.”
Her cousin was sleeping in the living room when ICE officers surrounded the house and started knocking on the door. Valeria says they had no warrant, but told her cousin, “We’re looking for Martin Alvarez… you need to show us where he’s at or you’re not going to like the way we come in and look for him.”
Martin was asleep in his room when the ICE officers removed him from his house. With all the commotion, Valeria woke up in time to see her father being put in handcuffs in the front yard. After establishing that she was Martin’s daughter, an ICE officer simply handed her a piece of paper and then left, she says.
“I feel like they took him in a really messed up way, like he was a criminal, like he did something really bad.”
Martin was not put into removal proceedings, due to his previous immigration status, and was given an automatic deportation order. He was transferred to the GEO Aurora Detention Facility where Valeria and Aleynah visited him every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. In addition to picking up a full-time job at a senior center, Valeria also began fighting for her father’s release.
“It’s always been me and him together. He’s my best friend, my father,” she says. “I don’t want to let him go. I have to do everything I can to fight for him just like he’s fought for me.”
After telling ICE that he was being extorted back in Mexico for businesses his sisters run, an immigration officer granted Martin a credible fear interview to see if there was any basis for claiming asylum. However, it was determined that Martin wouldn’t be endangered if he went back to Mexico. Martin asked a judge to review his case.
Valeria was in the court room last Tuesday, July 19, with Aleynah, when the judge upheld ICE’s determination and ordered Martin’s deportation. When both daughter and granddaughter began to cry, Valeria says she was kicked out of the court room without saying goodbye.
“I wasn’t allowed to cry or even say anything to him,” she says, with tears streaming down her face as she relives the experience. “My daughter wanted to go talk to him. It was just me with her. How can you be so heartless?”
On Friday, July 22, Martin was transferred from GEO to Otero County Processing Center just north of El Paso, Texas. On Monday, Valeria sent in a stay of removal application, requesting that ICE give Martin a second chance so that the family can stay together.
“Although our family is little, it is all we have,” she writes in her letter accompanying the stay application. “No matter how old I am, I need him. We have a unique and unbreakable bond that is hard to put into simple words. Please, I beg that you consider letting us reunite with my father.”
As of Wednesday, Martin is still being held in U.S. detention. And now, all Valeria can do is wait — wait while repeatedly telling Aleynah she loves her, even if the little girl doesn’t fully grasp what’s going on around her.
“They may say that little kids don’t notice or that little kids are too little to realize a person is not there. But that’s not true,” Valeria says. “That’s not true because [Aleynah] waits up for him, knowing that’s the time he gets off work. She looks for him, she goes to his room, she knocks. But he’s not there to open the door for her.”