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Roberto Martinez

Pioneering human rights advocacy in U.S.-Mexico border communities

Photo: Archives / AFSC

Roberto Martinez was a trailblazer in his uncompromising dedication to protecting human rights for the most marginalized members of border communities in the U.S. As director of AFSC’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program, Roberto set a precedent for many working to address systemic flaws in how governments interact with civil society.

Soon after joining AFSC in 1983, he transformed the U.S.- Mexico Border Program from a research center to an office that actively monitored law enforcement agencies and documented civil and human rights abuses in immigrant and border communities. Under his leadership, AFSC in San Diego became known for its relentlessness in holding law enforcement agencies, with their often unchecked power, accountable for their actions.

I met Roberto at a San Diego conference on immigration in 1994. During this tense time in California, voters were considering the anti-immigrant Proposition 187, which sought to deny health, social, and educational services to those “suspected” of being in the country without legal status. Roberto and I presented together on human rights and justice, and as a student, I admired his humble but steadfast disposition in such unsettling times.

Roberto speaking with reporters. Photo: Diane Shandor

Roberto was already organizing against police brutality when he joined AFSC. In eastern San Diego County, he challenged sheriffs and hate groups who terrorized Mexican families. Through AFSC, Roberto continued to bear witness to the impunity of law enforcement, at times bringing unwanted attention, even risk, to himself. Roberto once said: “Human rights work is still very dangerous. I have received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, the White Aryan Resistance, from the militia. I’ve had my office broken into. I’ve had to move my office twice, my home once.”

In addressing the growing militarization of border communities in the 1980s, Roberto ensured that the voices and concerns of affected community members were brought into discussions on policies and responses. This was especially true in his work with farm workers and day laborers, who were commonly seen as a disposable work force and easily exploitable. For example, AFSC’s Migrant Outreach Project, which Roberto spearheaded, included former farm workers who shaped how AFSC responded to the needs of these communities.

Roberto was instrumental in developing a systematized human rights monitoring project that elevated concerns over abusive Border Patrol practices to the international level. This methodology was replicated across the U.S.-Mexico border, later becoming AFSC’s nationally recognized Immigration and Law Enforcement Monitoring Project. In 1992, Roberto became the first U.S. citizen to be honored as an International Human Rights Monitor by Human Rights Watch for pioneering human rights advocacy in border communities.

Throughout the 1990s, Roberto continued to address problems with policies that increasingly led to hundreds of migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border. Roberto testified before the U.S. Congress on violence at the border, and he insisted on the need to address the economic root causes of migration. In 2001, Roberto retired after 18 years of service with AFSC, and he passed away in 2009.

AFSC’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program continues to advocate for transparency and accountability in immigration and border enforcement policies. It’s a powerful testament that Roberto’s legacy lives on in the hundreds of advocates who assert their dignity in immigrant and border communities across the U.S.

Pedro Rios is director of AFSC’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program. 

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