What it’s like to live as an undocumented American in Detroit

Ever since he was brought to Detroit by his father as a 5-year-old, Sergio Martinez has lived with the complications of being an undocumented immigrant.

He has had to worry about the safety of his family on a daily basis, fearing that every phone call means his dad or another family member has been picked up by authorities. He has had to navigate the world of official documents without legal status, and watch business opportunities slip from his grasp as a result. This led him to volunteer with Michigan United and other organizations to be a face for undocumented immigrants, part of what he says was a conscious decision not to give in to fear.

"It's funny because it's like coming out of the closet again," he says of revealing his identity as an undocumented person. "I feel like being gay, growing up in Detroit, being bullied as a child, and being an immigrant really toughens you up."

Like so many, Martinez expected a Hillary Clinton presidential victory on Nov. 8 — and better things to come. Three months ago, he says he was making plans to visit his mother in Mexico. He had dreams of buying another house in Southwest Detroit and starting his own restaurant, all while working and doing serious activism. "And then two o'clock that night happened," he says.

All this comes after a few modest victories for immigrant rights under the Obama administration, although it should be mentioned that President Barack Obama has deported more people than any other president. Martinez benefited somewhat from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program Obama implemented — he would keep his driver's license and wouldn't have to worry about deportation for two years if President-elect Donald Trump decides to keep the program. However, Trump has said he would "immediately terminate President Obama's two illegal executive amnesties," thus ending both DACA and DAPA, or the Delayed Action for Parents of Americans, which protects the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens. As Trump's website puts it, "Anyone who enters the U.S. illegally is subject to deportation."

But like so much else with Trump, the actual details of future policy are beyond vague, with promises to deport 11 million immigrants one day and 2 million another. Organizations that work on immigrant rights issues are beginning to organize against the Trump administration, but his unpredictability makes this difficult to do.

"He's like a moving target," Martinez says. "He changes every day, every other day. You can't sit here and organize something if you don't know what you're organizing." Perhaps just as significant is Trump's rhetoric, which Martinez calls "the Biore strip of racism," which "validated every single racist comment" and created a generalized feeling of anxiety in the immigrant community.

For now, activists like him are hosting "know your rights" classes to help inform immigrants about making emergency plans and how to prepare for whatever may come.

Martinez is not overly concerned about deportation, saying there are simply too many undocumented immigrants to deport them all. But he also makes the point that even if DACA is repealed, he could face deportation. "It could happen this way being an activist, or it could be something dumb like a traffic violation," he says. "I'm not gonna go out like that."

However, Martinez feels relatively safe in Detroit, where police have made a point not to pursue immigration violations unless they relate to a larger criminal investigation. As local immigration attorney Ruby Robinson says, "(This policy) is helpful in encouraging non-citizens to come forward to report crimes and be witnesses without fearing that an officer will inquire about their immigration status. This benefits the police and the community as it establishes trust and makes it more likely that crimes will be reported, investigated, and convictions will follow."

Going forward, Martinez sees many compelling reasons for pursuing immigration reform that would stop deportations and keep families together. He says immigrants build businesses and create jobs.

"We're entrepreneurial by nature," he says. "That's because there's no opportunity in our country, so we come here to make opportunity grow." According to a 2015 report by the Kauffman Foundation, a research nonprofit focusing on entrepreneurship, immigrants were almost twice as likely to start a business as other citizens. And the Detroit nonprofit Global Detroit says 1 in 10 American workers at private firms works for a company founded by immigrants.

Martinez repeatedly returns to the economic argument to make his case for changing the way we handle undocumented immigrants. He says if given the chance to talk to Trump, he would address him as a businessman and ask why immigration reform wouldn't be the fiscally responsible thing to do. "That means more investments, more jobs, more car sales, more everything," Martinez says. "So if you're fiscally smart and you're a businessman, why aren't you doing it?"

It's unlikely Martinez will get the chance to directly address Trump anytime soon. For now, he will keep working in Detroit, where he can be the face of an issue full of complicated policies and outsize-fears Trump has stoked. Martinez hopes by doing so, "it continues to be a topic that people don't forget about it" — and he can help give voice to the thousands of people living in the shadows.

Scroll to read more Michigan News articles
Join the Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.