Weber State scholar breaks her silence on immigration story

Jul 7 2013 - 8:14am

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BRIAN NICHOLSON
Special to the Standard-Examiner
Martha Camarillo Freston, an immigrant from Mexico who came here when she was 7 years old, poses with her numerous educational awards from Weber State at her home in Ogden recently.
BRIAN NICHOLSON
Special to the Standard-Examiner
Martha Camarillo Freston, an immigrant from Mexico who came here when she was 7 years old, poses with her numerous educational awards from Weber State at her home in Ogden recently.
BRIAN NICHOLSON
Special to the Standard-Examiner
Martha Camarillo Freston, an immigrant from Mexico who came here when she was 7 years old, poses with her numerous educational awards from Weber State at her home in Ogden recently.
BRIAN NICHOLSON
Special to the Standard-Examiner
Martha Camarillo Freston, an immigrant from Mexico who came here when she was 7 years old, poses with her numerous educational awards from Weber State at her home in Ogden recently.
BRIAN NICHOLSON
Special to the Standard-Examiner
Martha Camarillo Freston, an immigrant from Mexico who came here when she was 7 years old, poses with her numerous educational awards from Weber State at her home in Ogden recently.
BRIAN NICHOLSON
Special to the Standard-Examiner
Martha Camarillo Freston, an immigrant from Mexico who came here when she was 7 years old, poses with her numerous educational awards from Weber State at her home in Ogden recently.

Seven-year-old Martha Camarillo came to this country with only the clothes on her back. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1996.

"I crossed over with a little pink jacket, and my favorite shirt -- a little purple shirt with Mickey Mouse on it," Martha said. "My mom still has that shirt."

Crossed over?

The border. Ogden resident Martha Camarillo Freston -- that last one's her married name -- is an undocumented immigrant. Illegal alien. Whatever.

But she's so much more than that: A 2012 Weber State University graduate. The Crystal Crest Woman of the Year Award at that school. A recipient of the Phoenix Fellowship to attend the University of California Berkeley School of Law.

On a recent Friday evening, Martha's story finally spilled out in a marathon three-hour interview. She's waited a long time to tell it. All her life, friends and advisers have encouraged her -- either directly or indirectly -- to keep her immigration status secret. Some hoped to spare her pain. Others were simply uncomfortable with the conversation.

But now, she's breaking her silence.

Martha's story begins in Chihuahua, Mexico, a couple hundred miles south of El Paso, Texas. Her father walked out of her life when she was just 3 years old; Martha and her mother moved in with the little girl's grandmother.

"My mom was a young mom, not a lot of prospects in Mexico," Martha said. "We were really struggling. Really struggling."

In order to make ends meet, Martha's mother would go to the United States to work, for months at a time, while Martha stayed with her grandmother. Eventually, Martha's mother decided to take her daughter to the United States. But why at Thanksgiving?

"We were told that's when ICE was most distracted," Martha said of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "But I always think I was meant to come on that day, it's so symbolic."

Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn't easy crossing the border.

"We were there about a week trying to cross," Martha recalls. "I have memories of trying every night."

They'd hire different "coyotes" -- smugglers who help Mexicans cross the border into the United States. The coyote would take you to the border fence in the middle of the night, open a hole, and one by one you'd squeeze through. Then, it was a matter of sneaking from bush to bush on the way north.

"It was like hide-and-seek, that's what my mom would tell me," she said. "It was like a game, but we had to be quiet."

But each night, Martha and her mother would get caught.

"One of the times we were hiding in the bushes, they tapped us on the back with their flashlights and said, 'Get up,' " she said. "We were so sad. They'd put you in the truck, take your names and take you back to the fence."

As the immigration enforcement officers would shoo them back into Mexico, they'd say, "Try again," and "Sorry, good luck next time."

"I have only the best things to say about ICE," Martha said. "They were extremely courteous."

Another time, the coyote told his little group that a blue car would be waiting in a residential area across the border to take them deeper into the United States. So, late at night, they all piled into this car, "like sardines," and waited for the driver of the vehicle -- a driver who never came, Martha says, "because he got drunk." Eventually, a neighbor noticed all of these people sitting in a parked car in the middle of the night and called the police.

"They were so nice," Martha said of the responding officers. "The one cop, when he saw how sad we were, how tired, he got teary-eyed."

After a few nights of this, Martha and her mother were getting discouraged.

"We were running out of money, and we didn't have enough for food anymore, so my mom and I were drinking coffee and eating cookies," Martha said. "A white-looking man saw us. He said, 'I'm a U.S. citizen. I have a house across the border where you'll be secure. I know the best roads and everything to take.' "

He led them across the border and helped them find their way to Houston, where a job waited for Martha's mother. They moved to Utah a few years later, when Martha was in the fourth grade.

Martha excelled at school, attending Northridge High, and then Weber State. College was a sacrifice, she said, and one that came without government grants or loans.

"I have not been given one dime for my education," she said. "I've cleaned houses, served food, sold tamales, sold my car. My mom and I made extreme sacrifices for my schooling."

There was a time Martha was afraid to tell people she's an undocumented immigrant. She's not afraid anymore.

"I think the legal system is broken, the immigration system is broken," she said. "But because I love (this country) so much, I want us to fix it together, as Americans."

Make no mistake, Martha Camarillo Freston considers herself just that: "I'm very proud of my Mexican heritage, but I love America. I'm an American."

And if there's just one thing this American wants, it's to meet Utah Sen. Mike Lee -- if for no other reason than to have him explain to her why he believes she should be in Mexico right now.

"To Mike Lee, I'd like to say that it's easy to talk about immigration in the abstract," she said. "But it would be great if he'd tell me to my face: 'Martha, this is why you don't belong here. This is why you have to go ...' "

So, will somebody please do me a favor? Contact Senator Lee, and invite him to drop by the Ogden home of Weber State University's 2012 Woman of the Year for a frank discussion on immigration.

Martha even promises to serve chips and salsa.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, msaal@standard.net, or follow him on Twitter at @Saalman.

 

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