On May 1, Martin Esquivel-Hernandez and his family marched in an immigrants’ rights rally from Beechview to Brookline. He and his young daughters held a sign that read: “Not one more deportation.”
The next morning at 6 a.m., U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers took Esquivel-Hernandez from his Pittsburgh home. Now, the next deportation could be his.
Since his arrest, he has been indicted by a federal grand jury and has been taken on a 665-mile journey that has stretched from his home to the York County prison in Southeastern Pennsylvania, back to U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, then to the Cambria County Prison near Altoona, and eventually to a private prison in Youngstown, Ohio. He has spent more than seven weeks away from his family and it’s unclear when, and if, he’ll ever make it home.
Esquivel-Hernandez is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, who had previously made four unsuccessful attempts to cross the border; he has been in the United States since 2012. According to state magistrate court documents, he has no criminal record apart from minor traffic violations. He is being charged federally with felony illegal re-entry, and if convicted, he’ll be sent back to York — the state’s unofficial ICE detainee hub and deportation center. There, he could have a deportation hearing within a month of arrival and be sent back to Mexico, a country that is his native land, but one that lacks the things most important to him: his wife, his three children, his mother and his home.
But Esquivel-Hernandez is fighting back against his potential deportation. Instead of pleading guilty to the federal charges and throwing himself on the mercy of the immigration court, as many defendants do, he’s going to trial for the charges. His family and friends have started a public campaign to draw attention to his case to hopefully keep him in the country and in the community where he works, volunteers and is an activist for immigrants’ rights.
The odds are stacked against him. Criminal cases for undocumented immigrants — which have been steadily on the rise nationally in recent years — are usually rushed and near impossible to defend. The process is made even more difficult because communication with outside help is often complicated by the detention process.
Esquivel-Hernandez volunteered with the Latino Family Center in Hazelwood; participated in the needs assessment for Latinos in the city; and advocated for better services for immigrants in Pittsburgh schools. He’s important to the community, advocates say. And Monica Ruiz, of the Latino community-resource group Casa San José, says this is the first time in Pittsburgh that a large community effort has sprung up to prevent an undocumented Latino immigrant from being deported.
“The community is gathering around him,” says Guillermo Perez, of the Pittsburgh chapter of Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. “We are not going to take this lying down. He is our brother, our compañero, and we just won’t accept this.”
When Esquivel-Hernandez was charged by the federal government, U.S. Attorney David Hickton issued a press release calling him an “illegal alien,” a term found offensive by many groups, including the Library of Congress. Such treatment isn’t sitting well with Esquivel-Hernandez’s supporters.
“It is not the first time something like this has happened. When you read what was written by the U.S. Attorney, that does not reflect who Martin is,” says Ruiz. “We have tons of letters from people in the community. We need to let the people know who Martin is.”
Esquivel-Hernandez is from Jalalpa, a slum in Mexico City. In 2011, his wife, Alma, and their two daughters fled gang violence, crossed the border illegally and ended up in San Jose, Calif. After a brief time there, she moved with her daughters to Pittsburgh, where Esquivel-Hernandez’s mother, who is also undocumented, has been living since 2005.
In November 2011, Esquivel-Hernandez attempted to cross the U.S. border to join his family, but he was caught and sent back to Mexico. He tried to cross three more times but was captured and sent back. Immigrants caught at or near the border are prosecuted by special courts, where they can voluntarily return to Mexico without facing criminal prosecution.
On his fifth attempt, sometime after May 2012, Esquivel-Hernandez entered undetected and traveled safely to Pittsburgh.
“He gives and does everything just for his family,” says Alma through a translator. “As a husband, he has been a huge support. And for his children, he is superhero.”
Alma says she has been with Esquivel-Hernandez for 12 years, and they finally got married last year. She says he works in construction, and on many nights, he comes home from work very tired. But when his children remind him there is a school function, he quickly gets ready and heads out with his kids. She says Esquivel-Hernandez doesn’t drink or party with his friends and is always with the children. During the May 1 rally, two plush toys were attached to his belt, in case his youngest son (a U.S. citizen) became bored.
And Esquivel-Hernandez’s family extends beyond his wife and children. It also includes members of Pittsburgh’s Latino community. In fact, helping out the community is how Perez met Esquivel-Hernandez 18 months ago, when he approached Perez about a wage-theft case involving some friends on a construction job.
“Martin is a guy who sees injustice and feels compelled to do something about it, especially for his community,” says Perez. “He is not just a good father, good husband and good son — he is a genuine asset to this community.”
Alma says that Esquivel-Hernandez “is demoralized” in detention and is experiencing back pain. There was an eight-day period after his arrest when Alma didn’t know where he was being held and Esquivel-Hernandez could not communicate with his family. During his arraignment earlier this month in Pittsburgh, which City Paper attended, he was mostly silent, his face red as he wiped his eyes with tissues. Alma says he is worried about who will provide for his family while he is detained. Alma, who is undocumented, also works, but Perez says she now has to find additional work to support her three children.
But they are not ready to concede this fight. Alma says her husband is a person who doesn’t stand for injustice. “He thinks that if it’s within his power to help other people, he will do that,” she says.
Perez spoke with Esquivel-Hernandez on June 18, and he says Esquivel-Hernandez is determined to stay positive for now, with the hope that his supporters can provide some help. Ruiz, of Casa San José, says 30 notarized letters have been written by pastors, professors at the University of Pittsburgh, public-school teachers and Esquivel-Hernandez’s employer in support of him.
Since Esquivel-Hernandez works in residential construction, he needs to have a vehicle, says Perez. But given his status, he’s not eligible to receive a driver’s license in Pennsylvania. (Twelve states in the U.S., including nearby Maryland and Delaware, allow undocumented immigrants to receive some form of driver’s license.)
That lack of a license may be the impetus of Esquivel-Hernandez’s ordeal. He was cited twice in the last four months for driving without a valid license, once by Castle Shannon Police and once by Mount Lebanon Police. (He does have a Mexican driver’s license.)
Castle Shannon police towed his minivan on April 30, two days before he was detained by ICE. Castle Shannon Police Chief Ken Truver says there was “nothing in the police report that reflects we had anything to do with an ICE referral.” He adds that if his officers are not given reason, they don’t usually ask about residency status.
Mount Lebanon police cited Esquivel-Hernandez on March 26 for driving without a valid license and without insurance. He paid his fine on April 21, and according to his U.S. District Court case, he was identified as undocumented on April 25. Mount Lebanon police have not returned multiple calls requesting comment about its communication policy with ICE.
Ruiz says she has reason to believe that Mount Lebanon police are the ones who turned in Esquivel-Hernandez. Her nephew, Isaac Ruiz, was also pulled over by Mount Lebanon police in January 2015 — his only charge listed in the state magistrate — and he too was picked up by ICE this May. (Ruiz is in York awaiting the disposition of his case.)
Since 2014, Pittsburgh Police have had an unwritten policy not to initiate communication with ICE about undocumented immigrants. The department will comply if ICE initiates contact. However, there is no indication that other smaller police forces in Allegheny County have adopted similar policies.
Nationwide, there appears to be an increase in cases similar to Esquivel-Hernandez’s. Immigration-related criminal charges now make up the largest portion of cases in U.S. District Courts. According to a United States Sentencing Commission report, in 2013 (the last year for which data was available), illegal re-entry cases made up 83 percent of immigration cases and 26 percent of district-court cases.
And while most of those cases take place in districts closer to the border, Carlos Garcia, of the Puente Human Rights Movement, a Phoenix-based migrant-justice group, says even districts far from the border are contributing to these figures.
“The things that are happening that are normal at the border, we are seeing these things happening across the country,” he says.
Because of the large volume of cases at the border, it’s normal to have 60 to 100 cases prosecuted in one day, according to Garcia. But Garcia says that district attorneys across the country have also been given more power to treat all immigration cases, regardless of how close they are to the border, similarly to high-volume border-adjacent districts.
Many of the illegal re-entry cases over the last year in Western Pennsylvania were completed within a few months, and Esquivel-Hernandez’s was on that schedule. Early last week, Esquivel-Hernandez’s public defender filed a motion indicating that his client would be pleading guilty to the illegal re-entry charge. (He later rescinded that plea.) Since June 2015, 16 undocumented immigrants have appeared in federal courts in Western Pennsylvania, whose sole charge was illegal re-entry.
Of those, one involved a Jamaican man with a serious criminal record, while the rest were almost all immigrants from Mexico or Central America with little or no criminal record. Of the 16, only two, including Esquivel-Hernandez, are seeking a trial. Nationwide, immigration-related federal cases go to trial less than 1 percent of the time.
Erika Aldiron, of Philadelphia-based Latino immigrant rights group Juntos, says that not only are the odds against defendants in illegal re-entry cases, but the way they are treated during the detention process encourages them to take pleas. She says Esquivel-Hernandez’s story is not uncommon, and most immigrants are dragged from facility to facility, struggle to communicate with allies, and eventually just want to the process to end.
“He is not given a fair shot to defend his case, and it is a normal thing,” says Aldiron of Esquivel-Martin.
And illegal re-entry cases are difficulty to defend because they’re straightforward: Any deported immigrants who return illegally and are caught without a VISA can be charged. The cases have been called the “low-hanging fruit of the federal legal system” by The New York Times. According to a 2013 report by the federal Defender Services Office: “These cases are clogging the criminal dockets, and usually involve a simple set of facts, very few — if any — defenses … and disproportionately long sentences.” In 1998, an undocumented immigrant in California, Aurelio Garcia-Martinez, appealed his illegal re-entry conviction in U.S. District Courts, alleging that the process was “fundamentally unfair” and violated his Fifth Amendment rights, but he lost his appeal.
When contacted, Hickton’s office refused to answer questions about why he is choosing to prosecute these cases. In a 2013 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, however, Hickton said, “If you’re not going to bring some illegal re-entry cases, then the people who are playing by the rules [by going through the legal immigration process] are being prejudiced by the people who have cut the line. We’re standing for the proposition that there is a process for legal entry.”
Perez believes that Esquivel-Hernandez’s case is part of larger problems with the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement. He says the administration has vowed to prosecute immigrants who are threats to public safety, but Esquivel-Hernandez is “obviously not in that category.”
And while his criminal case is not a deportation hearing, almost everything rides on it. If convicted, Esquivel-Hernandez would be considered a felon and almost certainly would be deported. Also, because his son was born in the U.S., Esquivel-Hernandez could be eligible for Deferred Action for Parents of Americans. DAPA is now before the U.S. Supreme Court; if the rule is upheld, and if Esquivel-Hernandez avoids felony conviction, eventually he could remain in the country without fearing deportation.
But his supporters hope the case never gets that far. Perez says that in these proceedings, Esquivel-Hernandez is being unfairly labeled. The indictment, for example, says that Esquivel-Hernandez must be detained while awaiting trial because he is a “flight risk.” Perez says that may be one of the most absurd statements he’s ever heard about a man who is an activist in his community and fled Mexico to escape the gang violence there.
“He is not going anywhere. He is not a flight risk,” says Perez. “This is a guy that tried to cross the border four times to try to be with his family. There is nowhere else he would be.”