Migrant Rights Pioneer Sees Both Progress and Problems


He wears Hush Puppies and a somber expression that leans toward worry. His voice, gentle and drab, seems an unlikely conveyance for a message of moral indignation.

Yet Roberto Martinez has stubbornly delivered such a message during nearly three decades of advocacy on behalf of migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border.

And on the verge of retirement, here was Martinez again, presiding at another news conference to denounce alleged excesses by the U.S. Border Patrol two weeks ago. The previous day, two illegal immigrants had died and 19 other people were hurt when a pickup truck they were riding in crashed as border agents tried to stop it in rural San Diego County. The driver had veered onto the median, sending the pickup out of control. Passengers were thrown out.

Martinez blamed the agents, saying they provoked the driver into trying to escape by turning on their flashing lights. The migrants, he said, were put in unnecessary jeopardy.


“They’re not terrorists. They’re not committing a capital offense,” he told a handful of reporters summoned to his San Diego office. “To let them go is not going to change anything in this country.”

The presentation displayed the traits that have made Martinez one of the most durable, and controversial, activists along the border: an abiding concern for the migrants who slip into the United States to work and a hair-trigger impulse to condemn the agents who keep watch.

Martinez steps down next month as head of the border project of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social action organization. He closes out an activist career during which the border human rights movement he helped pioneer has grown substantially, resting now on sturdy legs.

“For us, Roberto Martinez has been a fundamental piece in the defense of the rights of migrants,” said Raul Ramirez Baena, the human rights ombudsman for the state of Baja California. “He has gained a special place in the hearts of migrants from all countries . . . . We’re going to miss his voice.”


It is a voice that has been heard often. Over the years, Martinez, a 64-year-old former aircraft engineer, has been variously labeled as a champion of the underdog and a stooge of the Mexican government. He has received awards and death threats. Friends marvel at how Martinez has kept up his passion while working in a region, on the U.S. side, that generally has supported a U.S. government border crackdown in place since 1994. Detractors dismiss him as a nuisance--persistent maybe, but with little credibility.

Since he began as an advocate for the rights of Latinos during the 1970s, Martinez has appeared at dozens of news conferences, public forums, demonstrations and marches. In the 1980s, he turned his focus to the Border Patrol, whose agents, he said, harassed and humiliated him as a Mexican American youth in San Diego during an immigration crackdown in the 1950s.

“I used to get picked up by police and the Border Patrol, and they tried to deport me,” he said during an interview in his shopworn office amid photographs of fieldworkers and Border Patrol roundups. “It was a terrible time for Chicanos in California.”

Activism came later--and by chance. Married and living in suburban Santee in the mid-1970s, Martinez came to the aid of three Latino neighbors whose children had been beaten in an apparent racist attack by white youths. His demands for action by school and sheriff’s officials were rebuffed. So he threatened to call the news media. The gambit worked: The officials agreed to bear down on the bullies and to bar T-shirts sporting white supremacist slogans.


“I learned that by organizing and taking a stand and not backing off, you could accomplish something,” Martinez said. His involvement grew, centered around his Catholic parish and the San Diego diocese.

After joining the border project in 1983, Martinez used the salaried post to air allegations that Border Patrol agents were mistreating immigrants. Word of his work spread. Before long, the office was a clearinghouse for immigrants and others claiming they had been beaten or suffered some other abuse.

He linked with Victor Clark Alfaro, a social anthropologist in Tijuana speaking out on behalf of Indians from southern Mexico who were living at the border. These were the early, faltering steps toward a cross-border rights movement--one that would require years more to take root.

“In the 1980s, it was Roberto in San Diego and I in Tijuana,” recalled Clark, who heads the Binational Human Rights Center in Tijuana. “We were isolated voices.”


By 1990, Martinez was issuing a yearly catalog of alleged abuses of migrants by border agents and police. Allegations were based on migrants’ accounts and difficult to confirm independently. That, combined with Martinez’s tendency to hurriedly fire off press statements, made him unpopular among border agents, who say the charges have so frequently been off-target that few in authority listen to him.

The agents union even sought to prove that Martinez was on the Mexican government’s payroll several years ago, but couldn’t dig up any evidence. “He had a tendency to say outrageous things, like blaming the Border Patrol” for last month’s pickup truck crash, said Joseph Dassaro, president of the agents union in San Diego.

“It sums up his entire effort. He fails to see any logical sequence of events and just blames the Border Patrol.”

Agents say Martinez has been too credulous regarding migrants who stand to gain from alleging abuse against agents because they may be allowed to remain in the United States as witnesses.


But some cases Martinez has brought to the public’s notice have panned out.

An agent pleaded guilty to obstructing justice last year for trying to cover up a traffic stop during which he used force and left a motorist injured. It was Martinez who reported the case for official investigation. Martinez also hosted a news conference so the motorist, a permanent U.S. resident, could tell his story.

“I think it’s a spiritual thing with Roberto,” said David Valladolid, a veteran Chicano activist who has known Martinez for 20 years. “I think he internalized a great deal of the pain people were suffering. It became personal.”

In his office, Martinez pulls out a photo album and flips through a pastiche of gruesome images. Close-ups of gunshot wounds. Scrapes and bruises. Bloodied lips. Eyes swollen shut.


It is evidence, he said, of what can happen to undocumented immigrants when no one is looking. It has been his job to call attention to them.

“I know there’s been some improvement, but there’s still a lot of abuse there,” he said.

“There’s still not enough accountability.”

Martinez concedes that his long focus on beatings made him slow to recognize the issue that now dominates the human rights agenda on the border: the deaths of hundreds of migrants who succumbed while crossing in remote areas to avoid the tighter border controls. He has joined activists from both sides in denouncing the U.S. crackdown as deadly.


He said he plans to write a book about his grandparents, who moved to California from Texas in 1915, and the long history of tension on the border. His departure comes at a time when the border is getting unprecedented attention from the governments of the United States and Mexico.

More activists than ever are focusing on it, too. That was evident at a conference in Tucson last year that drew several hundred activists from both countries, many in their 20s.

It was a far cry from the 1980s, when the fledgling effort to create a binational rights commission attracted just 50 people to a kickoff meeting, said Clark, the longtime Tijuana rights advocate.

“It is a new generation,” Clark said. “I told Roberto, ‘This is the new generation of activists.’ ”


“They’re not terrorists. They’re not committing a capital offense.”