As the national debate on immigration rages on, a case in Pittsburgh is highlighting a new way to tackle immigration rights.
Martin Esquivel-Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who became a familiar name in the Steel City, was detained in prisons in York, Pennsylvania, and Youngstown, Ohio, for nine months before being deported back to his home country on Tuesday. Esquivel-Hernandez’s case resembles that of many other undocumented immigrants around the country except in one key way — the massive amount of community support for Esquivel-Hernandez is rare. Most immigrant rights protests focus on immigration as a whole, but what’s made this scenario impactful is that it’s centered around Martin and the Esquivel-Hernandez family specifically, an effort that adds a human aspect to a larger debate on immigration.
Despite the deportation, Esquivel-Hernandez’s case shouldn’t be considered a complete loss. Rather, immigrant rights activists should take note of the ways his movement was — and is increasingly becoming — a success.
Martin is a husband and a father of three — two girls, Luz and Samatha, and 5-year-old Alex. The youngest has full U.S. citizenship since he was born after Martin’s wife, Alma, came to the country with his two daughters. Esquivel-Hernandez’s story, like that of many immigrants, is a complicated and perilous one, and every moment of it is illuminated by his commitment to his family and bettering his community.
Martin joined the Mexican army in 2011, when he was assigned to take down drug cartels in the country. The cartels retaliated, threatening the Esquivel-Hernandez family and eventually forcing them to leave the country in search of safety and opportunity. Martin sent his pregnant wife and two children ahead of him to the United States to make their way to Martin’s mother in Pittsburgh and he followed shortly after.
Since joining his family in 2012, Esquivel-Hernandez has become an active member of the Pittsburgh community, advocating for better Spanish language options in schools, volunteering within the local Latino and Christian communities and standing up for immigrant rights despite his own precarious immigration status. But after receiving several traffic violations last spring for driving without a license, Esquivel-Hernandez was eventually arrested in his home by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials — just one day after he and his family marched in an immigrant rights rally in Beechview.
He was originally taken to a prison in York, Pennsylvania, and charged federally with illegal reentry, which is a felony, in June. But the charges were dismissed in December in exchange for a misdemeanor charge of using false identification to enter the country, which he plead guilty to, and moved to a private prison in Youngstown, Ohio. The distinction between the charges is important, as the latter meant Esquivel-Hernandez wouldn’t necessarily be considered a priority for deportation. But ICE declared his case a priority in January, citing his four previous attempts to enter the United States before reuniting with his family in Pittsburgh.
While these changes in the Esquivel-Hernandez case developed, Pittsburghers around the region stood together to voice their support for Martin and his contributions to the community through numerous protests, letter-writing campaigns and petitions. Mayor Peduto even offered his support to the family and helped set them up with a pro-bono lawyer for Martin’s case.
“The coalition we’ve formed is the greatest thing I’ve ever been apart of,” said Christina Castillo, an organizer at the Thomas Merton Center involved in Martin’s case since the very beginning. “We’ve all come together for this one person who represents something a lot larger than what he knows.”
Between the organization and individuals supporting Martin’s, more than 1,400 people signed a petition and more than 800 sent letters — 500 of those written within the first 24 hours of the campaign — to an ICE Field Director in Pittsburgh, Rebecca Adducci. These documents asked her to consider Esquivel-Hernandez’s role as the sole breadwinner for his family, as a community leader and of the threat of violence he faces in Mexico as argument to deter his deportation.
A protest planned for Tuesday was supposed to be supporters’ last ditch effort to convince ICE not to deport Esquivel-Hernandez, but things took a more somber turn after news broke that he was deported that morning. The protest went on anyway and the protesters numbered over a 100, all standing in solidarity with Martin and his family.
“We decided to host the action anyway because it’s important for the family and community to know that even when someone gets deported, it doesn’t mean we’re going to go away,” Castillo said.
We should look at the progress made in Esquivel-Hernandez’ favor in Pittsburgh and work to adopt similar tactics in immigration fights around the nation.
Castillo and other supporters don’t see the case as isolated from wider immigration issues. She spoke Thursday about the importance of what Martin, his wife Alma and their three children represent: a family separated while trying to find safety and opportunity in a new home. In this way, larger ideas about what immigration is and means, as well as how it affects individuals and families, are localized and become more relatable — thus spurring people to join the movement. Without Martin being willing to place himself and his family as symbolic figures for immigration rights, the fight wouldn’t be as prominent in Pittsburgh as it is today.
The immigrant communities and organizations that have partnered under Martin’s case won’t stop fighting for legislative, social and educational change. While Castillo emphasized a need to hold representatives accountable for legal initiatives that will make undocumented immigrants safer, she also noted the important ways that educational and social changes can shape communities and contribute to helping immigrants.
Educational programs that disseminate information about what immigrants can offer to communities — like diversity, growth and economic development — and actively combat stereotypes, like misconceived notions about immigrants taking jobs away from Americans,
can help change the perception of immigrants from just foreigners to friends and neighbors.
While it’s clear we’re in need of better legislation that protects immigrants, it’s changes like these, that get at immigration issues on a base level, that can create more long-term and sustainable change in communities. And they do so because they focus on the communities themselves and changing them from within.
Esquivel-Hernandez was, and is, a member of the Pittsburgh community. His supporters made that very clear. And his family will be taken care of while he’s gone, just as he took care of the community while he was here.
“If anything, the deportation proves how much more we need to come together and work harder,” Castillo said.
Martin’s fight is over for now. But what he stands for is still alive and well in Pittsburgh, and it’s not going anywhere.
Amber is the Opinions Editor at The Pitt News. She primarily writes about gender and politics.