Local Community Members Remember A Deported Immigration Activist

By Nisaa Jackson 4/29/2019

Boston – On a warm day in late October in a small city just outside of Atlanta, Eduardo Samaniego, a student and immigration activist, went out for a run. The run took a detour that would take him unwillingly back to a distant home: Mexico.

Samaniego, 26, who lived in western Massachusetts, was visiting a relative’s house in Georgia. Wanting exercise, he started on a path near the home, but friends say he eventually lost his way. He hailed a cab back to the home where he was staying. He did not have his wallet or phone. When the cab driver realized Samaniego didn’t have money to pay the fare, he called the police. The evasion of fare sent him on a journey through Georgia detention facilities. After 106 days in immigration detention, US authorities sent him to Mexico on Feb. 1, 2019.

“He’s an inspiration, obviously, for many reasons, for being an outspoken undocumented person in favor of immigrants, a DACA person, the way he got into college and his life, how he lived it, and everything he was doing for the community,” said Dax Crocker. He never met Samaniego, but became an organizer for Samaniego ’s release through his work at Episcopal City Mission. Samaniego’s story of hope and setbacks touched many. The impact of his story and character led to demonstrations in support of his release in 25 states, according to Bar Kolodny, one of the organizers for demonstrations for his release in Boston.

Photo Source:Bar Kolodny. Far right Carly Margolis (ECM), third from the left Bar Kolodny (St. Stephens Youth Programs)

Samaniego was a recognized immigration activist in Western Massachusetts and beyond, making strides nationally in the realm of immigration reform. He advocated and organized in favor of immigration legislation like the DREAM Act (2017) and The Safe Communities Act, according to his friend and co-worker Rose Bookbinder. Photos on Samaniego’s Facebook page show him attending immigration demonstrations and being invited on TV news to talk about his work in the area of immigration. Although he had his own beliefs about the system of immigration, he didn’t let that stop him from interacting with those whose views differed.

“He knew how to have conversations no matter who he was talking to. He was somebody who was really into the idea of reaching across the aisle.” said his friend and former peer in s­tudent organizing while in college, Max Carter.

Carter says the two met while student organizing on immigration while at Hampshire College. He says that although Samaniego was an active immigration activist he had an active social life, that didn’t always include conversation about the topic and was frequently with people whose opinions differed from his own.

“ He was one of those people who really didn’t push his politics right off the back. He wasn’t some body who was a hundred percent of the time living and breathing the movement other than the fact that he was is dealing with the realities of this post colonial situation everyday in his own life ”

According to Carter one of the truest characteristics of Samaniego’s character was being able to talk to anyone. Carter said the two were still chummy even though they had differing feelings toward Margaret Thatcher, who Samaniego had admired, quoted often and casually referred to as “Maggie.” according to Carter.

Eduardo had come to the U.S. undocumented when he was 16. He graduated high school in 2013 at the top of his class as Valedictorian and was offered admittance to Hampshire College, and a full scholarship for undocumented individuals.

According to Margaret Cerullo, who acts as a liaison between possible candidates for the scholarship and the college, Samaniego was one of only three people who have been selected for the scholarship to date.

She said prior to attending the college Samaniego was apart of Georgia Freedom University, a gap year education program for undocumented students who couldn’t get into Georgia’s public universities because of their immigration status.

Cerullo said “on paper he looked like someone we’d love to have on campus and in my opinion that turned out to be true.” She added that Samaniego exhibited “curiosity, grind, intellectual hunger, a clear social justice mindset.” Making him an ideal candidate for the college.

According to friends and fellow organizers, while Samaniego was attending the college he was organizing on immigration legislation.

“He was developing into sort of a star in the movement [for immigration reformation.,” says Carter.

According to progressivemass.com the Safe Communities Act supports “ a ban on state support for a Muslim registry, due process rights for people detained in state and local facilities for civil immigration violations and prohibiting agreements with DHS that deputize local officers as immigration agents.”

On their site the Anti Defamation League describes The Dream Act as “ a bill in Congress that would have granted legal status to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and went to school here.” It stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. “He was also organizing both documented and undocumented youth to organize for immigrant rights,” says Rose Bookbinder his colleague at the Pioneer Valley Workers Center.

“ In a room by yourself, lights on 24hrs a day, not all to eat with a fork or a spoon or knife you have to eat with your hands, you’re not allowed clothing and you are under 24hr observation.” This is how Bookbinder, who spoke with Samaniego during his detention, described the conditions of solitary confinement at some ICE detention centers. A story on The Hill newspaper’s website, thehill.com also features accounts from immigrants who have shared what conditions they experienced while at Irwin County Detention Center. Irwin County’s detention facility was the last stop for Samaniego before his departure.

Recently, the facilities conditions have been getting more attention online following recent detention of high profile rapper who goes by the name“21 savage”. ICE has not commented publicly and also has not gotten back to my messages via phone.

Sitting in his cell in Irwin county detention center Samaniego wrote a letter, which would later be shared with the public. It was a message, of realization and unrest, but also one of encouragement and hope. The letter Samaniego wrote was brief, the page had scribbles on it as if he were trying to find the exact words to convey his feelings and thoughts on the page. He underlined the words “to all” when addressing his friends and family in the phrase “to all my friends and family” and ended it with xxo, meaning hug, hug, kiss, a sweet closing.

“I LOVE YOU, EDUARDO!!! Thank you for your inspiration and work! You are right – much work to do, including getting you out!!!” wrote Juli Draney under the Facebook post including the letter Samaniego had written. Her comment was among many of Samaniego’s Facebook friends and supporters who responded with messages of dismay and encouragement.

Jan. 16 Free Eduardo Vigil at Episcopal City Mission

A Peak Into His Character

Max Carter recalled entering Samaniego’s small college dorm room during their friendship while at Hampshire College in 2015. He says he sat on a makeshift couch on the floor while in Samaniego’s room while Samaniego sat on the floor. According to Carter, Samaniego was upset, broken down emotionally, following proceedings the college had filed towards putting him on academic probation. The possibility of academic probation came after he had been seen helping a drunken student to their room one night. The police had been called. According to Carter what bothered Eduardo was that “his attempts to help had been misinterpreted” said Carter. Carter says the incident was another thing Samaniego had to deal with between “coming to the U.S. and making it to Hampshire,” as Carter put it.

Following Samaniego’s emotional and vulnerable conversation with Max. Samaniego “jumped right back in,”

And “days later he was back on his feet without any issue,” Carter said.

At the Pioneer Valley Worker’s Center in western Massachusetts where Samaniego worked, his charisma and charm kept the sometimes-heavy organizing environment light, energetic and joyous, according to Bookbinder. The sound of his laughter resounded through the busy office, as Bookbinder describes it.

Bookbinder describes a busy week when, the immigrant- and worker-led center, had back-to-back days of working around the clock. The office had been in frenzy, and while most of his co-workers had taken a break “Eduardo kept going.” Bookbinder said. He had stayed behind to clean and re-organize the space for his comrades. Eduardo clipped photos from actions and hung them around the room. He cleaned. “He made the space special.” recalled Bookbinder.

An Unlikely Victim

Samaniego came to the U.S. for high school and was among the top of his class at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia.

“He was a very resourceful guy,” Margaret Cerullo said.

According to Margaret Cerullo, Samaniego immigrated to the U.S. by himself at 16 to attend high school. Cerullo said in their conversations Samaniego had referred to having an Aunt in the state. “He learned English,” said Cerullo.

“He took a rigorous course load, taking classes like AP psychology.” according to his former teacher Melanie Shelnutt.

Samaniego graduated from his school of nearly 3,000 students as valedictorian, a feat his peers and elders acknowledge as difficult.

After High School he attended Georgia’s “Freedom University”. According to Margaret Cerullo, Freedom University – Hampshire College liason, Freedom University a gap year education program for students who cannot gain admission into Georgia’s public universities because of their immigration status. Their website they says they “provide college preparation classes, college and scholarship application assistance.”

According to Cerullo it was through Freedom University that Samaniego applied to Hampshire College. He was offered full scholarship admission to Hampshire College. Samaniego received a scholarship that the college created specifically for undocumented individuals after getting involved with the Georgia Freedom University.

Samaniego attended the Hampshire College in the fall of 2014 according to Cerullo. At Hampshire College he kept up his reputation of charismatic, gregarious and intelligent. He had built a network of supporters and friends, particularly in Western Massachusetts according to his former co-worker Bookbinder.

When Samaniego was arrested and detained, the Pioneer Valley Worker’s center spearheaded the fundraising effort for his bond. The bond to have Samaniego released from jail was $1400, said Bookbinder, was involved in raising the money for Samaniego’s bond.

People across the country from different stages of his life, from organizing and school, friends and family to people who had simply been impacted by his story, donated to this fund for his release. But Samaniego’s bond was denied and he was transferred to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, the Irwin County Detention Center. The Go Fund Me Campaign features 750 donations over the course of four months. It raised $30,053 in donations, $53 dollars over the $30,000-dollar campaign goal. The Go Fund Me contributions were used for his legal fees and medical expenses,Bookbinder said.

Organizers advocating for his release declared Jan. 16, 2019 as the national day of action for Samaniego. In 25 cities across the country rallies, vigils and delegations were held on his behalf, according to Carly Margolis, lead organizer for advocacy for Samaniego’s release at Episcopal City Mission. Demonstrations for the national day of action in Boston, Massachusetts included six organizers gathering at The Massachusetts Statehouse to deliver a petition with 9,000 signatures for Samaniego’s release followed by a candlelight vigil at Episcopal City Mission Church.

Episcopal City Mission became involved with Samaniego’s story when approached by his friend and former classmate Bar Kolodny who had met Eduardo at Hampshire College the fall of their first year. She had been doing organizing work in the local community when she found out about Eduardo’s detention on Facebook. The church had been willing to become apart of a larger Massachusetts support network for Eduardo and offered additional financial support for Eduardo’s bond and living in the case of his release.

Dax Crocker, lead organizer at Episcopal City Mission says Samaniego inspires him. Crocker says Samaniego’s detention hit home for ECM, because as he was a faith leader and follower of the Episcopal church but also because of his work on the immigration front, which connects with the social justice goals and values of the Mission.

Crocker echoed what he says he interpreted as James Baldwin’s sentiments on what the ideal male in this country is in the film “I’m Not Your Negro.” “Someone who is a go getter speaks up, fights against the wrongs he sees in society, reliable — a John Wayne type.” He attributes those qualities to Samaniego. Having attended high school and college in the U.S. and working on immigration legislation on a national level Eduardo began building connections and touching people around the county. “I think Eduardo just grew up in the U.S. and was thinking like an American citizen.” Crocker said.

Illustration: Portrait of Eduardo Samaniego by Adam Blaustein Rejtö for The Pioneer Valley Workers Center

Many of those people commenting called and wrote letters to Homeland Security demanding Samaniego’s release and illustrating his selfless, harmless character, with some letters ending with “ Eduardo is not a flight risk and we demand his immediate release on bond so that he can pursue medical treatment and legal remedies.”

Pressure Mounts

Shortly after his 90th day in detention Samaniego moved from Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, to a mental health facility in South Carolina. The national day of action for Samaniego, thousands of signatures, and the support of several activism organizations lead to Eduardo’s move. Bookbinder said Samaniego had dealt with mental and physical heath issues following a gas explosion in a Georgia apartment complex in 2015, that he needed medical attention for, while he was at Irwin County Detention Center according to Bookbinder.

Eduardo had another hearing scheduled for a week after he arrived at the mental health facility in South Carolina. On Jan. 25, 2019, in his last hearing with Judge William A. Cassidy, Eduardo agreed to leave the country under voluntary departure. Many in his support network say he was denied due process and his lawyers’ counsel and was under intense mental emotion and physical stress when the decision was made.

An Unwavering Heart

Two weeks after returning home to Mexico, on Valentines Day, Eduardo returned to social media platform, Facebook to briefly thank his friends, family and advocates for supporting him throughout his detention. The message in part reads, “I am healing and resting. I send you all the love today, I hold you all in my heart.”

“He’s a total inspiration for me, and it’s just very sad and disappointing to see him leave.

“If anyone has the characteristics of the type of person that we need in this country its Eduardo.” Said Crocker. Dax Crocker’s sentiment is the sentiment of many who became familiar with Eduardo and his story.

 

* I was unable to get in touch with Eduardo through his Facebook page or Email despite my attempts. The narrative of this story is based on a series of interviews with people involved with Eduardo’s both directly and indirectly.