Martin Esquivel-Hernandez, a local activist who entered the country illegally, reached a plea deal Thursday in his deportation case.
Esquivel-Hernandez, who is originally from Mexico, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor illegal re-entry charge at a hearing at the federal courthouse.
He was sentenced to 89 days in jail, which advocates said will decrease the likelihood of his deportation.
“Now we have go through the ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) portion,” said Monica Ruiz, an organizer with the Thomas Merton Center and Casa San Jose. “So that (jail sentence) makes him even less of a deportation priority.”
Esquivel-Hernandez was arrested in May 2016 by ICE and turned over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office on felony re-entry charges. Were he to have plead guilty to those charges, Ruiz said he would then be considered a criminal and fall under the federal agency’s priority enforcement policy.
Prior to his arrest, Esquivel-Hernandez lived in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood for more than four years with his wife and three children. His youngest son is a U.S. citizen. Esquivel-Hernandez has no criminal record.
Guillermo Perez, president of the Pittsburgh Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, said the next step is to appeal to immigration officials.
“We’re going to be making a request for prosecutorial discretion to immigration again, arguing that even with this misdemeanor that he’s now pleaded to, that he’s not a priority for enforcement under the current policy and for that reason he should be allowed to return to his family,” Perez said.
Prior to Thursday’s hearing, faith leaders, elected officials and activists sent dozens of letters to acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania Soo Song, asking her to consider Esquivel-Hernandez’ contributions to Pittsburgh and motivation for illegally entering the country, which was to be with his family.
At recent rallies for Esquivel-Hernandez, advocates called for city leaders to designate Pittsburgh a sanctuary city, although Perez said the terminology is misleading.
“There is no sanctuary for undocumented people outside of a house of worship, maybe,” Perez said. “But we are going to be focused very hard on trying to develop policies locally here to do whatever we can so that we don’t have any more cases like Martin and his family’s.”
Ruiz said she hasn’t spoken with council members about specific legislation, but said Pittsburgh Police already treat people without proper documentation like a sanctuary city would.
“It’s just not written. It’s an unspoken policy that Pittsburgh Police doesn’t comply with ICE, they won’t detain anyone that’s undocumented and wait for ICE to come get them,” Ruiz said. “But if ICE is looking for someone and Pittsburgh Police happen to stop that person, then they will.”
Perez said Mayor Bill Peduto has shown support for Esquivel-Hernandez and his family and expects the mayor’s continued support in the next phase of the case.