MOUNT RAINIER – As Hector-Jairo Martinez consulted his map during the 15-day trek from New York to Washington, D.C., he was struck by the arbitrariness of different borders such as state lines.
“These invisible boundaries that you pass through, and you’re like wow, they really don’t mean much,” Martinez said. “To me, that was the most memorable experience. Just seeing the unity of things and the continuity of things, as you keep on walking through these roads, when you get to one state and then the other, there’s nothing that stops you from moving freely.
“The invisible boundaries need to go.”
Martinez is one of 11 immigrants’ rights activists who recently completed a 250-mile walk from New York City to Washington, D.C. to raise awareness for a clean development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act they hope Congress will approve. The troupe began their walk on Feb. 15 and passed through Prince George’s County Feb. 26 through 28. They were hosted by families in Greenbelt and Mount Rainier.
“This has been a test of our bodies,” Martinez said.
The group walked about 18 miles a day between 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
“There’s just a sense of supporting one another and keeping each other going through,” Martinez said. “That’s also kind of a testament to the power of the walk. We walk in community for our community.”
The immigrants’ rights organization, the Seed Project, collaborated with the #OurDream Campaign to organize this walk, called the “Walk to Stay Home, a Journey Home.”
“The walk came about as a way of lifting the message that we are part of this country and this is our home,” Martinez said. “It’s also giving a human face, a story to what sometimes is just considered a number.”
The 11 activists represent the 11 million immigrants who live in the United States without documentation. Most of the walkers are Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.
DACA, which was enacted in 2012, provides protections for nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country before they turned 16. DACA-recipients are given work permits for two-year periods, which they must reapply for once the permits expire. In September, the Trump Administration announced its plan to phase out the program on March 5. However, federal judges have temporarily blocked that decision.
Martinez himself is a DACA-recipient.
“Basically, what DACA has done for me, is it has given me the opportunity to carve a life for myself,” Martinez said. “When Trump decided to rescind DACA, it kind of put everything up in the air, because it meant my current life had an expiration date.”
He started developing plans for what actions he would need to take if he loses this protection.
“I’ve been at my job for the last three years, so as you can imagine, it’s a really difficult place to be in, always kind of fighting for your life,” Martinez said. “At the same time, knowing that you may not be able to live it.”
Throughout the walk, the group has relied on local residents and groups to provide them with places to stay.
“It’s a lot of trust in the communities and the networks we’re reaching in to,” Martinez said.
Six Greenbelt families hosted the walkers when they came to the city on Feb. 26. There was a registered nurse in Greenbelt who offered to examine the group before they continued their trek.
Mount Rainier city officials offered their City Hall as a space for the activists to rest and regroup on Feb. 27 and said it was a way of practicing the city’s support for immigrants.
“It was symbolic for city hall to open its doors,” said Mount Rainier Ward 1 Councilwoman Celina Benitez.
The city passed a resolution in October in support of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and DACA, legislation that offers different forms of protection for unauthorized immigrants.
Benitez said such a large number of Mount Rainier residents wanted to assist the activists, that the town developed a waiting list of people willing to host the group.
Other residents donated bottles of water and other supplies for the walkers.
“Everywhere you go there’s such new diversity, there’s such humanity, such care,” Martinez said. “Every town that we’ve stayed in, we’ve just been graciously welcomed by our hosts.”
Martinez said while they may not have received strong reactions from federal lawmakers, the positive responses from local governments have been encouraging.
“Unfortunately, the thing with politicians is they tend to turn their ear the other way too often, but what we have gotten is a lot of support from local governments,” Martinez said. “In (Mount Rainier’s) city hall we’re being received….that’s why we keep saying to people, we encourage you to come out to walk with us to stand with us and really push for a change.”
“At the end of the day, what wins are the stories,” Martinez said. “What wins is when people see that they share more (similarities) than (differences).”
For Martinez, a clean DREAM Act would provide permanent protections for undocumented youth and their families.
“Any legislation that comes about, the most important thing is that there is that permanent protection for the undocumented youth, but not at the expense of our families,” Martinez said. “For too long our communities have been pitted against each other. The administration is just using us as pawns to get their anti-immigrant agenda moving forward. That’s why, for us, a big point has been pushing those in power to really stand their ground and put forth legislation that would actually support the community and not harm it.”
Martinez and the other members of the march met and chatted with community members throughout their walk. Some onlookers expressed their opposition to their cause, while other people joined during the march.
As the group walked through Prince George’s County, they picked up about seven to 19 additional walkers.
“For us, the biggest thing is the symbolism of the walk and the power of just being together in community and supporting each other as we go along,” Martinez said.