From the Fields to the Courtroom
Former migrant worker Cirilo Martinez is determined to help immigrants
Published in 2011 Michigan Rising Stars magazine on September 9, 2011
When clients visit the Law Office of Cirilo Martinez in Kalamazoo for counsel on immigration matters, the 37-year-old attorney views their concerns with personal perspective. “I understand them. I understand where they’re coming from,” he says, “because I know that it is easy to think that you can get sent back.”
Martinez knows because he spent part of his early youth harboring the same fear. When he was 5, his family left behind their drought-plagued village in Mexico and became migrant farmworkers, following the seasonal crops between South Texas and Michigan’s fruit belt.
“We knew that other people had a lot more than us,” he says, “but we were pretty happy. Afternoons we would relax and play volleyball. When it got really hot, we’d go to a lake down the way from us.”
Still, there was an underlying fear to daily life. “We knew we could get kicked out,” Martinez says.
His parents had retained an immigration attorney, but, Martinez says, the lawyer was ripping them off. “Any spare change that my parents had was going to this lawyer down in Texas because he was supposedly trying to get our immigration status up to snuff,” he says. “If this guy had just said, ‘Listen, I can’t help you. You guys don’t make enough money. You’re financially ineligible [for legal residency].’ How hard is that? … Being taken advantage of hurts. And being taken advantage of by an attorney is not right, and I carry that with me.”
The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted Martinez and his brothers legal residency, but he still carried those feelings with him to the University of Michigan, then to Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
He studied international law, and, after graduating, interned at Legal Services of South Central Michigan, which housed Farmworker Legal Services. With them, he’d visit the migrant camps to offer legal advice.
When Martinez opened his own practice several years later, he naturally took on immigration cases.
“Immigration law is weird,” he says. “It’s like a busted water hose. You cover one hole and then another one spurts out.” For example, one immigration status case led to a divorce referral, which sent him a criminal defense case, which, in turn, brought more immigration clients. “Before you know it, I’m getting calls from people all over the state. Detroit, Grand Rapids,” he says. He’s now also a court-appointed public defender. Variety keeps him balanced, he says.
The time spent engrossed in international law has paid off as well, helping Martinez land his biggest client: the Mexican Consulate in Detroit. He’s the consulate’s sole attorney, representing Mexican nationals in Michigan courts.
In 2006, Martinez became a U.S. citizen. But the hallmark of his story? “I have seven brothers, and we all have postgraduate degrees,” he says. To return the gratitude to those who helped them along the way—bilingual teachers, a college outreach student, a college professor—Martinez sits on the board of The Imagine Fund, a nonprofit organization that holds private funds donated for minority college-bound students.
He credits the college professor for challenging him to become an attorney. As for credit for his thriving practice, that’s rooted in his first legal experience. “If you don’t have an immigration benefit, I’m not going to charge you $5,000 to do paperwork that’s going to get you nowhere,” he says. “I’m honest with clients.”