Immigrants Like Me

Martine Kalaw advocates for those fighting deportation—as she once did.

Immigrant advocate Martine Kalaw

Born in Zambia and moving to America, age 4, with her Congolese mother, Martine Kalaw ’04 MPA was doing fine. Though her mother died, and her American stepfather, she persevered. A benefactor stepped in, getting her through school and off to college. It was there the troubles began. Kalaw’s immigration status was questioned, and a personal odyssey began: 11 years as an undocumented immigrant, seven fighting deportation, bouncing between lawyers, playing the roles seemingly demanded of her, uncertain where she might end up.

For her, the story has a happy ending. She is today a U.S. citizen, operating her own management consultancy. But she also resolved to spend her time leveraging her experience in America’s immigration system for the benefit of others.

Kalaw writes frequently for HuffPost on immigration issues; is a frequent speaker (appearing, for example, at John McCain’s Town Hall on Immigration); and volunteers with organizations that assist immigrants with their court-system challenges. Her website offers how-to’s and advice (e.g., “Five questions to ask your immigration lawyer”). And her recent book, Illegal Among Us, tells her story while, she says, “highlighting the absurdity of policy that marginalizes undocumented immigrants.”

Along with tactical advice, Kalaw has messages about self-determination. Don’t “ask for help,” she says; find “investors” in you. From a recent TEDx talk: “Even at a young age, I already knew that miracles were made up of people who were committed to your long-term success.”

This article appeared in the fall 2019 print edition of Maxwell Perspective © Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail