Photo courtesy of Martha Zavala Perez
Pepperdine alumna and DACA registrant Martha Zavala Perez attended President Trump’s address to the joint session of Congress earlier this month as a guest of U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley.
Zavala Perez received her master’s degree in intercultural communications from Seaver College in June. Zavala Perez said she was born in Mexico but was brought to the United States when she was 1.
“I was raised to think that I was an American citizen,” Zavala Perez said. When she was 17 years old and applying for college, Zavala Perez’ parents explained that she was not an American citizen, Zavala Perez said.
Zavala Perez was able to attend college, completing her undergraduate degrees at Oxnard College and California State University (CSU) Channel Islands, she said. Additionally, after applying for and being accepted to the DACA program in 2012 Zavala Perez was able to realize her dream of attending graduate school.
“As a student at Pepperdine, it was actually the first time that I was public about my immigrant identity,” Zavala Perez said.
Zavala Perez said she met Brownley a few times during her career, but it wasn’t until it was time for Zavala Perez’s DACA renewal to be processed in fall 2016 that she became more closely connected to the representative.
DACA status is only valid for two years, after which a registrant must reapply. Zavala Perez said she submitted her DACA renewal application and the associated fees, anticipating that her application would be approved, as she had used her DACA status to enroll in a master’s program and had been offered a teaching job at a CSU Channel Islands.
“The purpose of the renewal is that as the person applying for the renewal, I’m supposed to prove that I have used my DACA rights within the past two years to benefit my community,” Zavala Perez said. “So there really was no reason to deny my permit.”
“Sadly, what happened was late 2016, due to the election and the shift in the political climate, ICE — or immigration, specifically — started delaying the process and so myself and thousands of DACA recipients who had turned everything in for renewal,” Zavala Perez said. “Our permits expired and immigration was unwilling to give us any kind of extension while they, reportedly, just had a lot of paperwork to do.”
The delay in processing of DACA applications meant that Zavala Perez faced the possibility of having to resign from her career if her work permit were to expire. Zavala Perez said that she, her attorney, her university, and Rep. Julia Brownley contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asking why her permit was being delayed but none of them received a response.
“Immigration refused to communicate with any of these three entities and so I did end up actually losing my job,” Zavala Perez said. “I had to resign.”
Zavala Perez said that after having to resign from her position at CSU Channel Islands, she found herself washing dishes in a kitchen to make money.
Once DACA applications began to be processed again Zavala Perez was able to return to teaching as a professor at CSU Channel Islands and Oxnard College, she said. It was after this that Zavala Perez said she received a call from Rep. Brownley’s office.
Rep. Brownley had learned what happened to Zavala Perez and the phone call was from one of Rep. Brownley’s staff members “letting me know that I was invited to be her special guest to the joint session of Congress,” Zavala Perez said.
Zavala Perez said it was “an absolute honor and privilege to be [at the joint session], first and foremost, but it was also a very difficult thing to do. I had to sit there and listen to a man who hates me continue to perpetuate hate and fear and the difference is in life I can’t mute it. I can’t turn it off.”
The trip itself was also stressful, Zavala Perez said.
“As an undocumented immigrant, as a DACA recipient, I did not know if getting on an airplane was going to be safe,” Zavala Perez said. “I didn’t know what to expect walking into a Federal building.”
It was knowledge of the danger of traveling to the joint session that led Zavala Perez to withhold from immediately accepting the invitation she said. “I was immediately struck with fear and had to talk with my family,” Zavala Perez said. “What are the risks? What are the possible consequences and are we willing to go through with them?”
Zavala Perez said what convinced her to attend the joint session was recognition of the fact that she is in a privileged position.
“Being a 25-year-old DACA recipient with a master’s degree and a career is not the norm,” Zavala Perez said. “I am the exception.”
“It was very important for me to attend that joint session and be the complete opposite of what the current immigrant frame is,” Zavala Perez said. “Immigrants are being framed as criminals and these horrible people yet there I was. I had been educated at the same schools they [those who oppose DACA] had been and worked with them and looked like them. That is what drove me to take those risks.”
Zavala Perez said as she walked through the tunnels of Capitol Hill after the joint session that she realized she had accomplished something great.
“Regardless of the fears and the risks, I was still there,” Zavala Perez said. “I had accomplished my own personal journey, I had accomplished the dreams of my family.”
Zavala Perez said that also in attendance of the joint session were refugees, other DACA recipients, and people who had been detained during the travel ban.
“These are hard times and we need to continue fighting the good fight but we’re there,” Zavala Perez said. “I felt very empowered that I was in a position to impact change.”
Although she does not see herself using politics as a primary channel, Zavala Perez said that she will continue working to affect change.
“I’m not a big politician. It’s not my style, but that is why I went into teaching,” Zavala Perez said. “I very much believe that education is the most powerful tool we have. It’s what got me to the joint session. So what I plan to do is continue to do what I’m doing which is impact change, influence change within my own circle of influence.”
Zavala Perez said that she will “continue to allow students to hear different perspectives because it’s also not normal to have professors who are ‘Latinas from the hood,’ as I tell my students.”
It is important to remember that those who are affected by laws are human beings, Zavala Perez said.
“I think, first of all, the biggest mistake we tend to make is that when we think about policies or laws we forget to think about the humans impacted,” Zavala Perez said. “We forget that we are dealing with human beings, we are dealing with families. That is important to remember.”
Zavala Perez said she is thankful to her graduate committee from Pepperdine.
“Without them, I never would have felt empowered. I never would have made the choices that allowed me to come to this point. I am very thankful to Dr. Sarah Stone-Watt, Dr. Roslyn Satchel and Dr. Bert Ballard for all that they did for me while at Pepperdine and all that they continue to do for me now.”
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