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New Mexico Gov. Martinez says her grandparents weren’t undocumented, after all

Susana Martinez
Susana Martinez

Gov. Susana Martinez has released evidence in an effort to disprove her earlier claim that her grandparents came to the United States as undocumented immigrants.The Associated Press reports:

Martinez, a Republican and the nation’s only female Hispanic governor, made headlines this year by acknowledging that her grandparents came to the U.S. without immigration documents. But she said her comments were based on what she has since learned were mischaracterizations of census information by the news media.

The governor directed her political organization to undertake the genealogical research after publicity about her immigrant roots and her push to repeal a law allowing undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license.

“We don’t know everything, I’m sure,” the governor said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But it gave us more information than we had and it helped us understand … the family tree and how people came back and forth from Mexico into the United States.”

What Martinez released wasn’t new evidence per se, but rather a new perspective on whether her grandparents legally qualified as undocumented immigrants by today’s standards.

Initially, the fact that the 1930 Census listed her parents as “aliens,” meaning they were not U.S. citizens or seeking citizenship at the time, led to the media reporting that they were undocumented, and Martinez publicly stated that the claim was true.

However, the 1930 Census does not mention immigration status or whether her grandparents were authorized by the government, typically what is needed by today’s standards in order to say someone is undocumented or “illegal.”

U.S.-Mexico border states during the early twentieth century had many Mexican nationals who weren’t officially “immigrants”, many of which would cross back-and-forth across the border as migrant workers. As Michael A. Olivas, director of the Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance at the University of Houston, told AP: “There was no such thing as an undocumented immigrant during that time.”

Martinez’s grandparents were issued permits by the U.S. government to cross the border multiple times from 1908 to 1931, according to documents given to AP. ”So [my grandfather] understood the process and seemed to have followed the process,” Martinez said.

But the documents don’t say anything about immigration status, merely that the border crossings were authorized by the U.S. government. Mexican nationals are no longer authorized to freely cross the border and inhabit and work within the United States without a visa specifically permitting them to do so.

The concept of “illegal” Latin American immigrants only arose during the Great Depression, as high unemployment caused many Americans to focus on migrant workers as an unwelcome cause of economic competition. That distrust resulted in the policy of “Mexican Repatriation,” when immigration authorities pressured or forced hundreds of thousands of Mexican nationals, and many U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, to leave the United States.

Immigrant rights activists used Martinez’s initial admission to argue against her proposal to repeal a state law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Despite her background, Martinez has gained approval from conservatives for her tough stance on undocumented immigrants, and she is part of a small group of Hispanic GOP leaders to have gained national attention.

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