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Identity & Community

Pittsburgh Activist Asking U.S. Attorney To Lessen Felony Re-Entry Charges

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Lawyers for a Pittsburgh man accused of entering the United States multiple times without permission are asking for prosecutors to lessen the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Martin Esquivel-Hernandez lived with his wife and three children in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood, where he was an activist for immigration rights. He was arrested in May and has been in a private prison in Youngstown, Ohio.

National Immigration Project executive director Dan Kesselbrenner said it’s unprecedented that Esquivel-Hernandez is facing a felony offense, taking into account the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement standards.

“In the rest of the country, making this a felony is rare,” Kesselbrenner said. “I contacted a friend who’s an assistant public defender in Arizona and she said there hasn’t been a single felony prosecution for illegal reentry in all of her 15 years of practice.”

If Esquivel-Hernandez is convicted of the misdemeanor offense instead of the felony, the likelihood that he would be deported would decrease. Under current immigration law, individuals with significant criminal records, such as felonies, are prioritized for removal. With only a misdemeanor, Esquivel-Hernandez would not fall under that category.

Kesselbrenner said if the U.S. Attorney’s Office convicts Esquivel-Hernandez of felony reentry, it would be an “uncompassionate” way of handling a “responsible community member.” He said public awareness and community support could influence the prosecution.

“From all the things I’ve looked into,” Kesselbrenner said, “he is a good member of the community that would make sense for the U.S. attorney to want to stay in Pittsburgh.”

On Thursday, dozens of local activist organizations, city and state elected officials and labor leaders sent letters to acting U.S. Attorney Soo Song, requesting "compassion" in Esquivel-Hernandez's trial. 

Immigration activists have used Esquivel-Hernandez’ case to advocate for making Pittsburgh a “sanctuary city,” where law enforcement can deny immigration officers information on residents.