It was 6 on a Monday morning and the street outside Alma Brigido’s Beechview home was silent.
The home was silent, too, save for the pre-dawn movements of a relative readying himself for work.
As Alma, her husband Martin Esquivel-Hernandez and their three children slept upstairs, Martin’s brother Arturo gathered his belongings, stepped through the front door and headed toward his waiting vehicle.
He was quickly surrounded.
The immigration agents at his car asked if he was Martin.
They followed him back into the house.
The agents quickly climbed the stairs, and when they reached Alma and Martin’s second floor bedroom, the agents opened the door. Alma woke up. Martin was arrested and taken away with nothing on but the shorts around his waist. Alma remained in their bedroom unable to leave, but tried to provide him clothing. She wasn’t allowed.
Alma listened for the children asleep on the third floor.
She listened for her husband.
She heard nothing.
And then the agents were gone — along with Martin.
The home was silent again, Alma told The Incline, save for the sound of her own panicked breathing.
18 months later
A year and a half has passed since that May morning.
Almost eight months have passed since Martin was deported back to Mexico after a lengthy stay in U.S. custody — and despite the many protestations of his supporters.
Alma and their children — 12-year-old Shayla, 10-year-old Luz and 5-year-old Alex — remain in Pittsburgh, adapting and also failing to adapt to life without him, his household presence and the income he generated.
The family told The Incline about these struggles last week at Casa San Jose, a welcome center for Latino immigrants in Brookline. Alma speaks little English, so Shayla translated for her mother.
“My sister, she always told my father if something bad happened,” Shayla said. “She would only tell my dad, because she always felt safe with him, and now she’s like stuck on a shelf, and she cannot come out.”
Luz sat motionless nearby as Shayla spoke.
“And my brother, it just became harder for him to focus and pay attention,” Shayla added, “and I had a whole lot of depression when my father left. Now I’m taking therapy.”
Alex sat across the table from her, repeatedly uncoiling and recoiling what appeared to be a paperclip.
With Shayla translating, Alma recalled the morning of Martin’s arrest and nervously waiting a day to tell their children what had happened. She talked further of the personal reverberations that continue for her and their children today. Alma, Luz and Shayla are all undocumented. Alex was born in California.
“She’s worried that if she walks in the street or drives and ICE just pops up out of nowhere and takes her,” Shayla said, translating for her mother. “She thinks, ‘What will happen to my children?’”
Shayla is soft-spoken and well-spoken, seeming older than she is. In speaking with her, you’re reminded of her age only by the mouthful of braces occasionally revealed mid-sentence. She wears her hair in a long ponytail and infrequently smiles.
In announcing that her family has decided to leave their Beechview home, where Martin was arrested, Shayla said, matter-of-factly, “We’re not comfortable there.” They will remain in Pittsburgh.
‘A priority for immigration enforcement’
Alma and her daughters were the first to reach the states. Fleeing violence at home, they illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2011, winding up in San Jose. From there they moved to Pittsburgh, where Martin’s mother, also an undocumented immigrant, had been living since 2005.
Martin’s attempts to join them repeatedly failed.
According to federal authorities, he was captured trying to cross the U.S. border and returned to Mexico on four separate occasions between November 2011 and May 2012. Martin succeeded on his fifth attempt, leading to an illegal re-entry charge that would ultimately bring about the deportation case against him. That case also followed two citations in 2016 for driving without a license in Pittsburgh, including one just days before ICE arrived at their home.
While detained by federal authorities, Martin was bounced between correctional facilities in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. His children visited him often during that time. Alma, fearful of detention herself, did not.
“She couldn’t see him. Only us children could see him,” Shayla said.
Those prison visits, conducted through a glass partition, continued with Martin spending almost nine months in custody as his case worked its way through the courts.
“It was kind of upsetting to me because he was wearing the same clothing as a prisoner,” Shayla said. “It felt unfair.”
As for her father, “He seemed sad,” she added. “He seemed like he always wanted to cry but didn’t want to upset us.”
Then, in December 2016, nearly 7 months after his arrest, Martin pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of using false identification to enter the United States. It was a lesser count than the original illegal re-entry charge and left immigration officials with leeway in deciding whether or not to pursue deportation.
It quickly became apparent that they would.
“Mr. Esquivel-Hernandez has two misdemeanor convictions, one [for illegal re-entry] from 2012 and one from [December] 2016, and federal authorities removed him to Mexico four times since 2011, with the latest removal taking place in 2012,” an ICE spokesperson said in January.
“As a result, ICE has designated Mr. Esquivel-Hernandez’s case as a priority for immigration enforcement.”
Martin’s supporters, including Pittsburgh Roman Catholic Bishop David Zubik, urged the agency to reconsider. They argued that Martin, who had joined the Mexican Army after losing a factory job in 2011, was a target for cartel violence as a result of his military service. Meanwhile, Martin’s family claimed that it was threats from drug gangs that had driven them from Mexico in the first place.
Supporters also described Martin as an exemplary community member during his time in Pittsburgh, citing his volunteer work with the Latino Family Center in Hazelwood and his advocacy for better services for immigrants in Pittsburgh schools. Martin had even marched in an immigrants’ rights rally in Pittsburgh the day before his ICE arrest.
“Martin is a guy who sees injustice and feels compelled to do something about it, especially for his community,” Guillermo Perez of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement told City Paper in June 2016. “He is not just a good father, good husband and good son — he is a genuine asset to this community.”
Bishop David Zubik added, in speaking with the Post-Gazette, “This is a man who has contributed to the community. Removing him doesn’t protect anybody. It actually harms a lot of people.”
After Martin’s guilty plea in December, Alma, the children, Perez, Zubik and other supporters spent months wondering what might come next.
In February, they got their answer.
‘ICE won this time…’
Martin’s lawyer learned of his deportation in a Feb. 7 phone call from ICE. The news spread quickly from there.
“This is a tragedy,” Perez of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement said in a statement at the time. “He’s gone, he’s torn apart from his family, and he’s never coming back.”
Mayor Bill Peduto and Congressman Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, also expressed their frustration. “By all standings, this is someone who should have a path to citizenship,” Rep. Doyle said.
In a candlelight vigil in Pittsburgh that evening, Martin and Alma’s daughter Luz told a crowd of supporters, “My dad is not a criminal … ICE won this time, but in the second round, we will win.”
Hours earlier, Martin had arrived back in Mexico for the first time since reaching Pittsburgh in 2012, Shayla and Alma told The Incline last week. Martin’s family declined his comment for this story on his behalf.
He landed in Nuevo Laredo, a border town on the banks of the Rio Grande.
Martin’s family said a pastor who had learned of his case offered him a place to stay there. Martin remained with the pastor, Jaser Dávila, until he was able to connect with family in Oaxaca, a state about 1,500 miles south.
“In the time he spent with me, he received bad news, like the death of a close friend and also of a cousin, so it was a rough season,” Dávila told The Incline via direct messages on Facebook.
“I agreed with him to keep looking for legal options to be with his family, because he is a family man, and the distance really hurt him.”
Dávila has since relocated to another church.
Martin remains in Oaxaca with his sister and her husband. He was there during a recent earthquake that killed 36 Oaxacans, leaving homes collapsed and others uninhabitable. His sister’s home was not one of them. That same week, southern Mexico was hit by Hurricane Katia, killing two.
Through it all, Martin continued communicating with his family in Pittsburgh via text messages and FaceTime calls.
“He’s kind of scared and worried about hurricanes or the earth shaking there,” Shayla said.
“He also worries about ICE and us a lot here. He can’t sleep for thinking what will happen to us.”
Martin’s February deportation came just weeks after President Donald Trump took the oath of office and coincided with sweeping immigration raids seen nationwide in those first weeks of the Trump administration.
Today, the immigration debate continues to roil, further fueled by Trump’s threatened wind down of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program. And immigration arrests continue to rise, while deportations have fallen to lower levels than those seen at this time last year.
For children like Shayla, the numbers remain abstractions — her ability to conceptualize immigration policy limited to her own intimate knowledge of its impacts.
“He left home in May , and I was upset when he wasn’t there for my birthday. I graduated middle school, and it was upsetting not to have him there.”
She added, “We can talk to him, but he’s kind of sad when we call each other because when we’re upset we cannot hug each other and say, ‘Everything is going to be alright,’ face-to-face. And when we’re happy and prideful, we cannot hug each other and say, ‘You did a very good job.’”
That may not change anytime soon. As part of Martin’s deportation sentence, he cannot return to the United States for 20 years, his family said.
His youngest child, Alex, will be 25 by then.
Shayla, now a seventh grader, would be in her 30s.
In the meantime, Alma and the daughters cannot go to Mexico to see him. Monica Ruiz, a community organizer at Casa San Jose, said the daughters are not covered by the DACA program, because they have not been in the United States since 2007. As undocumented immigrants, they would not legally be allowed to re-enter the U.S. Alex was born in California and is therefore a U.S. citizen. He can and already has gone to Mexico to visit his father.
Advocates say similar dynamics are at play in mixed-status families nationwide. They describe a between-worlds existence occupied mostly by children and navigated carefully by their parents. Makeshift and often improvised arrangements are commonly employed. Technology is used to bridge the gaps.
“We talk to each other or text and say, ‘Good morning,’ and ‘Have a good day,’ and in the afternoon he’s telling us what he’s doing, and by night he’s telling us goodnight,” Shayla said of her father.
“But I worry about how much longer I have to be without him.”
In the basement of Casa San Jose, Alma sat nearby listening and nodding at the occasional word in English. At times she looked forlornly at the ground. She always looked tired.
“She wants him back,” Shayla said for her mother. “We all do.”