They had chanted “No more deportations” and “Borders are imaginary, families are real.” They had held signs and candles while listening to two young girls talk about their dad.
They had even stood in a circle, blocking traffic from the Hot Metal Bridge, which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials use to get to their South Side office.
Now Monica Ruiz, a community organizer at Casa San Jose, was asking one more thing of those gathered to support Martin Esquivel-Hernandez and his family after his deportation on Tuesday — call elected officials. Even if that means leaving a voicemail, Ruiz said.
“As you are walking to your car, call them and tell them how you feel right now,” she said. “… I don’t want to have to do this again.”
“This” was the #BringMartinHome campaign, a grassroots effort turned high-profile case to save Esquivel-Hernandez from deportation through more than 1,500 signatures, 800 letters and countless phone calls to ICE officials. While the campaign ended Tuesday, when Esquivel-Hernandez was deported, organizers say it’s created something bigger than will live on.
Multiple organizers of the campaign said it was a first for Pittsburgh. Not the first deportation of an undocumented immigrant, but the first that sparked wide public outcry and the support of elected officials like U.S. Congressman Mike Doyle and City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, per the Post-Gazette, and of faith leaders like Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s Bishop David Zubik.
Esquivel-Hernandez “sparked an immigrant rights movement” in Pittsburgh, said Antonia Domingo, a member of the campaign and of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement or LCLAA.
About the entire community
It was a movement that brought people together, Domingo said, and they showed up over and over again. Supporters said Esquivel-Hernandez knew that.
During the Tuesday rally, Christina Castillo, an organizer at the Thomas Merton Center, read aloud a letter he wrote. In it, the undocumented immigrant, who came to Pittsburgh from Mexico in 2012, wrote that he was grateful to his supporters, many of whom he never met.
“I don’t have much, but I have you all as my treasure,” he wrote.
The campaign was about him, but it was also about the entire community, Guillermo Perez, an organizer of the campaign and member of LCLAA, told The Incline in December.
“Martin is the one who bore the brunt of this,” Perez said then.
Ruiz told The Incline that when she got the call in May about Esquivel-Hernandez’s arrest by ICE officials, it wasn’t the first one she’d received about a deportation. She thought to herself, “We have to do something, it’s just happening so often.”
With Esquivel-Hernandez so visible and active in the community, Ruiz said it seemed like the right time to act. Many people knew him through the school his kids attended or because he was the person who pointed them to community resources when they had wage theft issues, she said.
Once he agreed to fight, the campaign just kept growing.
Ruiz said she knew the support was stronger than expected after she and other supporters were coming out of a court hearing in early December. It hadn’t gone well — a possible plea agreement didn’t happen — but Ruiz saw a crowd was outside. She first thought they were against Esquivel-Hernandez, but when she heard what they were saying, she realized they were there in support.
The campaign started with five people, and it grew to hundreds, Ruiz said. Building that community support is the one positive takeaway, she added.
‘A small family’
As she took the microphone on Tuesday, Esquivel-Hernandez’s wife Alma started by thanking those gathered for their support “in the most difficult time of our lives.”
She spoke in Spanish with a translator by her side, and said that although her husband was deported, the nine months spent fighting for him were not lost. That time created “a strong and admirable group” that ICE can’t separate, she said.
Campaign organizers agreed it was the personal story of a family that resonated.
“People stop and think about what’s really going on, that this is about rights [and] the dignity of people,” said Gabriel McMorland, an organizer at the Thomas Merton Center. He said that’s when people realize that undocumented immigrants could be friends or co-workers — not the terrible people they are portrayed to be by some politicians and media outlets.
People in the community got to know Esquivel-Hernandez’s wife, mother and three kids who all live in Pittsburgh, and that helped shed light on the humanity of his case, Castillo said. She added that supporters have been quick to readjust and respond to changes in the case.
“We’re like a small family,” Castillo said.
Even when President Donald Trump won the election, Ruiz said the phones at Casa San Jose, a community resource center, were ringing off the hook with people wanting to volunteer and help.
She said organizers joke that while Roberto Clemente is the most famous Latino in Pittsburgh, Esquivel-Hernandez may be the second most famous.
Calling on officials
Tuesday’s rally was expected to be an event to urge ICE to listen and release Esquivel-Hernandez, but his deportation caused a shift in the tone. Even though supporters knew he could be deported on any Tuesday, the confirmation of his deportation came as a surprise, and the rally was emotional.
Campaign organizers said they know that their fight isn’t over.
“This is not going to stop, it’s only going to get worse. We need to make this into a campaign for all immigrants,” Ruiz said, adding that better immigration policies are needed. She admitted that cases like Esquivel-Hernandez’s are hard to win, but “we want ICE to know that we’re watching them” and are going to hold them accountable.
“They have to stop separating families,” Ruiz said.
To do that, Esquivel-Hernandez’s supporters have to stay ahead of things to prevent more cases like his, Ruiz said. They can do that by calling elected officials to tell them about a family that is torn apart and to ask them to not support anti-immigrant bills.
“We have to urge state and local leaders to protect civil rights of all immigrants,” he said.
McMorland noted that too many politicians use immigrants for “racist scapegoating,” while others just stay silent. Neither is acceptable.
“We can’t do that anymore.”