Why Martin Esquivel-Hernandez no longer faces a felony — but could still be deported

For months, his name has been on posters and in chants, as Pittsburghers try to bring him home.

Martin E-H
Bring Martin Home / Facbook
MJ Slaby

A man once facing a felony charge for illegal re-entry to the United States will no longer go to trial next week.

But Martin Esquivel-Hernandez — and his supporters — still have to face federal authorities, who will decide if he can return to his home and his family in Pittsburgh.

U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose granted a plea deal Thursday that dismissed a felony charge in exchange for a new misdemeanor count of using false identification to enter the U.S.

Esquivel-Hernandez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to to 89 days in prison — more later on why that specific number matters.

His name has been on posters, in chants and in letters for months as friends, family, community advocates and politicians rallied to support him and advocated for his release, saying he is an active member of the community who wants to be with his family and doesn’t fit the criteria to be a priority for deportation.

So how did he end up in the spotlight?

Who is Martin Esquivel-Hernandez?

The now 36-year-old construction worker and his family came to Pittsburgh in 2012. His mother Maria Elena Hernandez-Lopez, has lived here since 2005, according to City PaperIn addition to his mother, his wife, Alma Brigido; two daughters, Shayla and Luz, who were born in Mexico; and son Alex, who was born in California, all live in Pittsburgh.

Guillermo Perez, president of the Pittsburgh chapter of Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, told The Incline that Esquivel-Hernandez and his family are well-known and active in the local Latino community and organizations like Casa San Jose, a community resource center, and the Latino Family Center. The Latino population isn’t as big in Pittsburgh as it is in comparably sized cities, but it’s growing, and this is the first case of its kind, Perez said.

Perez and Esquivel-Hernandez met through the labor council when Esquivel-Hernandez sought help after he and other workers weren’t paid for a job they did. The council is one of several working to bring Esquivel-Hernandez home.

On Thursday, Judge Ambrose pointed out that Esquivel-Hernandez is a good person who isn’t a threat and has no history of violence or drugs, according to the PG.

Why did he come to the U.S.?

Esquivel-Hernandez joined the Mexican army in 2011 after losing his manufacturing job, per City Paper. He went to basic training with plans to travel and address drug cartels. While he was in training, his family told the paper that they were harassed by the cartels. Esquivel-Hernandez and Brigido decided it wasn’t safe and they would join his mother in Pittsburgh.

Why did he get arrested?

This spring, Esquivel-Hernandez was cited twice for driving without a valid license (He has a Mexican driver’s license.), first by the Mount Lebanon police in late March and then again in late April by Castle Shannon policeAdvocates told City Paper they were suspicious of the reasons he was pulled over.

On May 1, Esquivel-Hernandez and his family marched in an immigrants’ rights rally from Beechview to Brookline, and the next day, he was arrested by ICE officers at his home.

He was charged with felony illegal re-entry to the U.S.

Esquivel-Hernandez was taken to the York County Prison and then back to U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh in June, where he first entered a plea of not guilty, but had plans to change it to guilty.

“Martin is the one who bore the brunt of this,” Perez said adding that Esquivel-Hernandez, like many people in his situation, was encouraged to give up. But Perez and others told him that if he was willing to fight, they’d campaign for him, so he stuck with his not guilty plea.

This is about him, but it’s also about the entire community, Perez said, adding that the support shows there are a ton of people willing to welcome immigrants and help them, documented or not.

Since Esquivel-Hernandez was detained in May, supporters have campaigned for his release.

So who’s in his corner?

Those backing him include local advocates and faith leaders, as well as U.S. Congressman Mike Doyle and City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, according to the Post-Gazette. And Mayor Bill Peduto helped Esquivel-Hernandez find a pro-bono immigration lawyer and helped his family meet Doyle. 

Organizations including Pittsburgh United, LCLAA and the Thomas Merton Center have all advocated for him. There have been a string of rallies held and letters written in his defense. 

In November, a group tried to deliver poster-size cards to then-U.S. Attorney David Hickton’s Downtown office, but weren’t allowed to take to posters in, according to the PG. The group sent the cards by mail and had a prayer to end their rally instead.

And when a possible plea agreement didn’t go through earlier this month, a group marched from the federal courthouse to the City-County Building, where Brigido spoke about how her husband’s detainment impacts their family. That’s when a trial for Esquivel-Hernandez’s felony charge was set for Jan. 3.

This month, supporters took on a letter-writing campaign asking Acting U.S. Attorney Soo Song to use prosecutorial discretion to drop the felony charge or to reduce it to a misdemeanor. Esquivel-Hernandez wrote a letter, too, published by PublicSource on Wednesday, ahead of a rally planned by supporters. He wrote in part:

I am not a criminal. The only crime I’ve committed was to love and fight for my neighbors, as if these strangers were my family. That is not a crime. There is nothing bad about doing that. This is why I am strongly asking you, with all my heart and respect, Soo Song, that you look at the suffering that you have caused my children through the eyes of a mother.

They learned before the rally that negotiations were possible after Song reached out to Esquivel-Hernandez’s lawyer Sally Frick and a hearing was set for Thursday morning, City Paper reported.

Perez attended Thursday’s hearing and told The Incline that he believed the the court appearance came together quickly because of the letter campaign and the attention it had.

What happened during Thursday’s hearing?

Judge Ambrose granted a plea deal dismissing the felony charge of illegal re-entry to the U.S in exchange for a misdemeanor count of using false identification to enter the U.S.

Esquivel-Hernandez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to to 89 days in prison.

He is being credited for the time he already served in prison, but he won’t be released yet, per City Paper.

Perez said Esquivel-Hernandez left the courtroom Thursday with U.S. Marshals, and it’s Perez’s understanding that he was going back to prison in Youngstown, Ohio. It’s up to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to decide if Esquivel-Hernandez should be deported, he told The Incline.

The Thursday hearing was “a partial victory,” Perez said. But even if all the charges were withdrawn for a “total victory,” there would have been no guarantee that ICE still wouldn’t deport Esquivel-Hernandez. Perez said the hearing was the end of the first round in a two-round fight. 

“We’ve got to win the second round, otherwise we won’t keep this family together,” he said.

Will the changed charge be enough?

If Esquivel-Hernandez went to trial Jan. 3, as previously planned, he could have been convicted of a felony and most likely deported. But a misdemeanor charge lessens his chance of deportation, but it is still possible, Perez said.

He said the sentence of 89 days was also important because a 90-day or longer sentence would have made Esquivel-Hernandez a priority to deport.

Based on U.S. policy, Esquivel-Hernandez didn’t qualify for priority deportation when he was arrested and he still doesn’t, Perez said, adding that the policy aims to deport “felons not families” and people who are a threat.

According to the PG, Judge Ambrose said at the hearing that she could accept his plea and sentence him, but could not help him with ICE.

“I cannot do anything with respect to your immigration status,” she said. “I wish you the best of luck.”

About three weeks ago, Esquivel-Hernandez rejected a plea deal proposed by Song’s office, City Paper reportedThat deal was for a charge of illegal entry after deportation, a charge that is a misdemeanor on first offense, but since it would be his second, the charge would become a felony.

Esquivel-Hernandez’s lawyer Sally Frick told CP that there have been cases near the U.S. border where the charge was a misdemeanor after the first offense, but that wasn’t what was offered in this case.

What happens next?

Perez said he and other supporters will turn their efforts to ICE and “focus some attention on [ICE’s field office director in York, Pa.] Thomas Decker.” Like they did recently with Song, Perez said supporters submitted a request for Decker to use prosecutorial discretion for Esquivel-Hernandez and were told it was rejected due to pending charges.

Since the Esquivel-Hernandez was sentenced, Perez said the request will be filed again today. If the request is rejected, they will go through the review process, he said.

Perez added that supporters plan to continue their weekly Saturday trips for Esquivel-Hernandez’s children to visit him, even if ICE detains him somewhere else.

Perez told The Incline on Thursday that he knows the future is unclear, but supporters have learned a lot from their campaign, which brought the community together. And they will continue until Esquivel-Hernandez is home.

“We were praying for this, and thank God for this,” Perez said. “I pray that Martin returns to his family.”