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.
FORMER MIGRANT WORKER CIRILO MARTINEZ IS DETERMINED TO HELP IMMIGRANTS BY ADRIENNE SCHOFHAUSER
FROM THE FIELDS TO THE COURTROOM
When Martinez opened his own practice
several years later, he naturally took on
“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
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.”