Faculty Profiles: Advocating for Immigrants

Faculty Profiles: Advocating for Immigrants

Assistant Professor Isabel Martinez’s Mission to Help Unaccompanied Minors.

By Shirley Del Valle

A third generation Chicana , Isabel Martinez, Ph.D., knows the plight of unaccompanied minors well. She is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who left Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, and has, for the better part of the last decade, worked with unaccompanied minors who have made their way to the U.S. searching for a better life. We talked with Martinez to learn more about her new book and her work with the Unaccompanied Latin American Minor Project (U-LAMP).

Becoming Transnational Youth Workers by Isabel MartinezCan you tell us about your new book?
My book, Becoming Transnational Youth Workers: Independent Mexican Teenage Migrants and Pathways of Survival and Social Mobility, expands on research from my dissertation which focused on why some Mexican immigrant teenagers were not enrolling in New York City schools, even though they were of school-age. I found that many of these minors were in the City without their parents and living with other relatives. And like their undocumented adult counterparts, they were working on average 72 hours a week, paying hundreds of dollars a month in rent, sending hundreds of dollars back home to their parents—the list goes on and on. The book also traces the way in which policies in Mexico and the U.S. shaped thinking about and ultimately led to acts of early school-leaving, immigration, and excessive labor of these teen minors.

Did your work with U-LAMP provide inspiration for Becoming Transnational Youth Workers?
Actually, it’s the other way around.Research from my book led to U-LAMP. After completing data collection for my book in late 2013, I met Lenni Benson, a professor at New York Law School and  Co-founder of the Safe Passage Project, a legal services non-profit that provides legal representation to New York City based immigrant youths in removal proceedings. After speaking with her, it became clear that her organization could benefit from hosting Spanish speaking John Jay students who could help lawyers interpret and translate cases of Latin American youth. That’s how U-LAMP was born. By the summer of 2014, nearly 70,000 unaccompanied Central American minors arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking asylum. Safe Passage Project would see many of these youths in immigration court, and in that first year, with the financial support of CUNY Services Corps, John Jay students would intern with the Safe Passage project and support many of these cases.

Are there any student stories that exemplify the John Jay student intern experience at U-LAMP?
One of my favorite stories is of a student named Myriam who came to U-LAMP with a GPA that was below the cut-off. She had just had an awful first semester as a transfer student at John Jay, but through U-LAMP, she discovered that she had strengths that were transferable to working with immigration attorneys and youths. This work helped her gain more confidence, which in turn led to better academic work. She now teaches mostly immigrant students in Florida.

Why is it important , as a school focused on justice and a Hispanic -Serving Institution, for students to get involved in projects like U-LAMP?
As a Hispanic Serving Institution, it is imperative that we provide meaningful opportunities to our students that will bridge their academic work with their communities. U-LAMP does this. It allows students to understand the value of their linguistic and cultural capital, which is rooted in personal and academic experiences. It strengthens and further develops them to ensure that the most vulnerable are adequately represented.