Mexican Family Torn Apart by ICE and US Attorney’s Office in Pittsburgh, PA

Note: this piece was written and published with the full knowledge and permission of the Esquivel-Hernández family, and input from activists working with the Bring Martín Home Campaign .

It is not a crime to be an undocumented person in the United States. It is not a crime to seek a better life for one’s family. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the US Attorney Soo Song have a choice about which people they detain, who to prosecute, and who to reunite with their families. Right now, with their detention of Pittsburgh Latinx activist Martín Esquivel-Hernández, they are willfully choosing to separate a father from his wife and his three small children.

Alma Brigido is Martín Esquivel-Hernández’s wife and partner of twelve years. She used to go on long walks with her husband around their Beechview neighborhood. On their walks, the Latinx activists would talk like any married couple does: about their household, their three children, the news of their days, big and small. But on May 1, 2016, Martín was unjustifiably taken from their home by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after being racially profiled by Mt. Lebanon police at a traffic stop a few weeks prior. Since then, Alma has taken her walks alone, using the time to think. As a parent heavily involved in her small children’s educations, a church member, and activist working with her husband to assess the needs of the Pittsburgh Latinx community, Alma’s life prior to May 1, 2016 had its own unique set of complications that are at once as universal and specific to any family. But after ICE and the US Attorney’s Office chose to tear Alma’s family apart, her balancing act has become exponentially more challenging, the odds increasingly stacked against her.

As Alma says in the above video, the system has attempted to make Martín a number. But he isn’t. For one thing, his and Alma’s love is defiant of anything that can be reduced into statistics. For example, Alma and Martín have a thing with the number 57. It’s something that they share, one of those sometimes-annoying inside exchanges between two people who have been together for a long time. The number 57 keeps showing up for them. Five is Martín’s favorite number, and Alma’s is seven. Alma’s birthday is also on May 7, and they had been together for 12 years — five plus seven is twelve — before getting married in 2015.

Martín, who worked in construction, was the primary breadwinner for the Esquivel-Hernández family. That was until ICE and the US Attorney’s Office chose to forcibly shuttle the 35-year-old father on a 600 mile-long journey through various detention centers before locking him away in a for-profit, private prison in Youngstown, Ohio. There, he is awaiting a federal trial, a possible prison sentence, and then deportation. The for-profit prison has a commissary, through which Martín has to purchase essential items — like shampoo — that should be free. Alma is working in a restaurant to support their three small children and make sure Martín’s commissary is funded so he can brush his teeth while held in prison without grounds. Since ICE and the US Attorney’s Office chose to take Martín from his family, Martín’s elderly mother has also begun to suffer health ailments due to stress. She moved in with Alma and the three children, and so now Alma is working to support her as well.

Although Martín worked long days and often came home tired, he would always attend his children’s school functions.

Anyway, on one of those long walks that Alma used to take with Martín, but now takes alone, she sat down for a moment on a bench for a moment of quiet before beginning the next day. Just before she rose again, she noticed that she had happened to sit in front of a house with the number 57 on the mailbox.

“When will this long nightmare be over?” Alma thought to herself.

And then she walked home to her children.

Alex, Martín and Alma’s five-year-old son, does not fully understand what is happening to his family. He believes his father is working at the prison and staying there. After the last court day, he went up to ask Martín when he was coming home. To help ease some of her son’s longing for his father, Alma leaves candy out on the table for him, and tells him that Martín stopped by and left gifts while he was sleeping.

Luz, Martín and Alma’s nine-year-old daughter, wants to know why her father is being treated like a criminal, when he has committed no crime. It is not a crime to be an undocumented person in the United States, but she noticed the handcuffs on Martín’s wrists at his last court date.

“My dad is not a criminal,” she said. “Why don’t they know that he is a good man?”

Martín and Alma’s two daughters stand holding signs asking to bring their father home.

Shayla, Martín and Alma’s eleven-year-old daughter, is in the sixth grade. Since ICE and the US Attorney’s office chose to take her father from his family, she has had to begin to cook, help her younger siblings with their homework, clean up after them, and put them to bed while Alma is working. She has trouble concentrating in school because she is constantly thinking about her dad and her family. Whenever they are able, the family makes the drive to see Martín in Youngstown, a two-hour round trip journey. Although the prison has Saturday visiting hours, the number of people who can visit each day is restricted, and Saturdays often become booked up in advance. In order to see their father as much as possible before the very real risk of his deportation, the family often has to go on Thursday or Friday to see him. This leads to further complications with Shayla’s attendance at school.

Shayla attends an after school arts program, and one day the teacher asked the children to draw the world as they see it. Shayla drew hills, trees, a road with a single car on it. This is her world: her family, on their way to see Martín.

The US Attorney’s Office and ICE is making a choice to take Martín away from his family. US Attorney Soo Song can choose to bring him home again. She can choose to withdraw the charges against Martín or negotiate a misdemeanor plea deal with his attorney. Martín is not a criminal, and yet he is currently charged with a felony, which, if convicted, would make him an ICE deportation priority.

It would not be unprecedented for US Attorney Soo Song to withdraw the charges against Martín. It happened in New Orleans. It happened in Portland. It even happened in Erie, Pennsylvania, under the very same US Attorney who charged Martín in the first place.

It would not be unprecedented for ICE to exercise discretion about who they choose to detain, either. It happened in Vermont.

The Esquivel-Hernández family is asking for something very simple: for the people in power to allow their father to come home. Allowing a good man to return to his family should be a simple choice for US Attorney Soo Song and ICE to make.

Donate to Martín’s legal defense fund below:

To ask how to get involved with the Bring Martín Home campaign, email keeptheesquivelfamilytogether@gmail.com.

Here is more information about how to support the Esquivel-Hernandez family and Martín.

I earn no money from the Huffington Post, which republishes content from my blog on Medium. If you support writing on issues affecting the community, please consider donating so that I can continue doing this work. It took me five hours to write and post this article. At a rate of $35 per hour, I should have earned $175. Rather than donate to me for this piece, please donate to Martín’s legal defense fund.

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