Jasmine Martinez is a second-generation Mexican-American who grew up acutely aware of what her family endured to give her a better life. Those sacrifices — and stories about the social injustice and discrimination her grandfather experienced after coming to the United States from Mexico in the 1940s — have inspired Martinez to pursue a career in politics. She’s currently earning a master’s degree in legislative affairs at George Washington University and plans to move back to her hometown of Porterville, in the agriculturally rich San Joaquin Valley of Central California, and run for Congress when she’s 30. “I don’t think our members of Congress are doing enough to reform our immigration system,” says Martinez, now 22.
What we’ve lost sight of is that this is a human problem, and we need to act with compassion.
She’s wanted to run for office ever since her father took her to a Republican fundraiser when she was a child. “I want to represent the huge Hispanic population. You have rich dairy and ranch owners, and then you have hundreds of workers that work the crops.” She’s an advocate of establishing a guest worker program to welcome people who pay taxes and contribute to the economy. “They’re working jobs that Americans don’t want to work,” she says. She’d also like to give undocumented workers amnesty and a way to apply for legal residency and, eventually, citizenship. “Deportation of existing immigrants is cruel. Many are working 10-hour days and trying to survive,” she says.
Martinez says she brings a unique perspective to reform because she’s seen firsthand the physical and emotional toll wrought by unwelcoming immigration policies. The Bracero program, a guest worker program created to meet agricultural labor shortages after WWII, has long been criticized for exploiting Mexican laborers. Her grandfather came to America through the program and later protested with labor leader Cesar Chavez on behalf of farm workers’ rights. “I’ve seen my grandfather work until he was 72 years old,” she says, noting how he picked berries up and down the West Coast until he was 50 then started a landscaping business. “I can see the wear and tear on his hands. They’re so rough.” Even worse, she says, was the discrimination he faced. On one occasion, a waitress refused him service at a diner in Texas. “He was hungry, and they wouldn’t even give him water, even though he had money. It was so appalling,” she says.
Martinez’s grandfather eventually gained his citizenship, and his children and grandchildren mirrored his work ethic. Martinez’s parents earned their high school diplomas, and her father worked 14-hour days juggling landscaping jobs and a home design startup to make ends meet. Her mother instilled the value of education in Martinez and her three siblings, and she recently went back to college herself. Both of Martinez’s parents “knew that the only way to break the cycle of poverty was to get an education,” she says.
Her grandfather’s experience serves as a reminder that immigration is a humanitarian issue, says Martinez, who wants to ensure that future policies treat people well. “What we’ve lost sight of is that this is a human problem, and we need to act with compassion,” she says. She intends to refocus that debate in her career in government, and, hopefully, one day on Capitol Hill.