UC Irvine student Leslie Martinez learned she was undocumented when she was a sophomore at Orange High School.
Her mother had told her about it when she was younger, but it didn’t register until that moment at school.
Martinez, now 18, said it took a “big toll” on her academically and emotionally. She described feeling like she had reached a dead-end on her dreams of becoming a surgeon.
On Tuesday, Martinez said, she regained a sense of leadership as a guest of Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) to hear President Trump deliver his first State of the Union address in Washington, D.C.
Martinez had visited the nation’s capital two weeks earlier with other “Dreamers” — people who were brought into the United States illegally as children — to speak with members of Congress. She heard some say they were planning to invite Dreamers as guests for the State of the Union.
But she was dumbfounded when she received Correa’s invitation.
“At that moment, I thought there’s like 800,000 Dreamers; I wasn’t going to get chosen,” Martinez said. “When I got the invitation, it was crazy.”
This was the second time Correa had invited a student as his guest for the address.
“Taking students is a win-win,” Correa said. “You expose them to government, show them that democracy is part of their life, that it’s within their reach. … This is what’s important to me. Dreamers are important to me.”
Martinez, he said, was “there for business.”
On Tuesday, Martinez met Correa at his Washington office, where they exchanged stories. Martinez told of how she was brought to the U.S. from Mexico at age 2 and eventually interned at UC Irvine Medical Center as a junior in high school with the help of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a federal government program created in 2012 by then-President Obama to allow immigrants brought in illegally as children the temporary right to live, study and work in the United States.
Moments before Trump began his speech Tuesday, Martinez was nervous to hear what he would say, she said. She said she expected a unifying message after hearing Trump say he wanted a law that would give young immigrants like her legal status and a way to achieve full citizenship in 10 to 12 years.
That would come as part of a package including money for his proposed southern border wall and new limits on legal immigration.
In the end, Martinez said she felt a renewed sense of confidence even though she was let down by Trump’s speech, in which he did not acknowledge the Dreamers in the audience.
“I never thought I’d do this,” Martinez said. “I never thought I’d be the voice for 800,000 Dreamers — I never thought I’d be advocating for us. I was never someone to be open about my status. I’d always avoid the question or topic, but I realize I have to if I want something done. I have to advocate for myself.”
Oscar Teran, director of the Dreamers Resource Center at UCI, said: “I’m always impressed when students put themselves out there to advocate for others, and Leslie took this bold opportunity to be Correa’s guest. I think it took a lot of courage.”