By Ashley Alvarez
UCI freshman Leslie Martinez was one of 30 Dreamers invited by House Democrats to attend the 2018 Presidential State of the Union address last month. Standing in the crowd, Martinez felt the responsibility on her shoulders.
“I hope the administration and the people that saw us there realize that we’re real people,” she said. “It puts our image in their heads, so when they think of Dreamers, while they’re coming up with legislation that affects us, now they have a face to put to the title.”
Martinez, a chemistry major, is a recipient of the Deferred Action Plan for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, established during the Obama administration. She was born in Puebla, Mexico, but was brought to the United States at the age of two. Martinez grew up in Orange County, and has lived in California her entire life.
She became aware of her immigration status in middle school when attempting to apply for scholarships and realizing she didn’t have a social security number.
“I didn’t know what that meant for me at the time. I also remember feeling kind of embarrassed.”
The implementation of DACA in 2012 allowed recipients to legally obtain jobs, procure drivers licenses, and enroll in college.
“The program opened up many opportunities for me, it gave me a social security number which in turn made scholarship applications possible. It made life here possible,” said Martinez.
Realizing that her resources were limited, Martinez immediately took full advantage of the program. During her junior year of high school, she secured an internship at UCI’s medical center, and got a part-time job.
“Without DACA, I wasn’t allowed to work, but when I was eligible, I didn’t waste any time, didn’t think twice. I immediately got a job,” she said.
Martinez’s perseverance and ambition are also reflected in her academics. In high school, she was enrolled in AP classes, was recognized as an honors student, and was elected as her high school’s “Senior Standout” based on her academics.
“Being a Dreamer influences my studies greatly. Just because I have this one obstacle in my life doesn’t mean I can’t accomplish anything.”
Leslie is affiliated with the Dream Scholars program on UCI’s campus which helps to connect students like her with opportunities and organize ventures like her trip in January to Washington D.C. for the State of the Union. She was selected for the trip by Lou Correa, California’s 46th district representative. While there, congresspeople asked her to share her story and describe what DACA means to her.
“The program supports me and lets [Dreamers] contribute to this country, and that’s all we want to do,” said Martinez.
Her experience in D.C. was not all positive, though. She recalled feeling intimidated and infuriated by President Donald Trump’s speech when he spoke on the topic of immigration, especially when he used criminals and gang members as representatives of the immigrant population and as an introduction to the topic.
“It made me want to get up and shout, ‘No! I’m a DACA recipient who underwent background checks, and I’m not a criminal,’” said Martinez.
She remembers looking around the room, disheartened, and noticing the vast support for Trump and his inaccurate comments.
Still, Martinez felt the event was a success.
“Getting to meet Congressman Correa and having an actual conversation with him reassured me that he is 100 percent with Dreamers and that he’s fighting for a legislation to protect us. That’s important, because nowadays we aren’t sure who we can put our trust in.”
Martinez felt empowered by her visit; she was proud to be a voice for her community.
Looking forward, Martinez hopes to continue her studies and enter medical school. She plans on becoming more involved in advocating for the immigrant community.
“I want to advocate not just for Dreamers but for our parents as well, who we call the original dreamers.”
Martinez hopes that her experience will assist her in helping her peers to get their stories told, to find empowering opportunities, and to find their voice.