The photos of Selena Hidalgo Calderon and her fourteenth-month-old son, Owen, held aloft by immigrant rights’ activists at a June 5 news conference in Syracuse, New York, were a painful reminder of how an immigrant’s search for a better life can take a deadly turn.
“Unfortunately, violence knows no bounds,” Rebecca Fuentes, organizer with the Workers Center of Central New York, said at this event.
Hidalgo Calderon, an eighteen-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, was found dead May 23 near the farm in western New York where she worked. Her son is still missing.
Her boyfriend, Everardo Donoteo Reyes, is a suspect in the case. Charged with tampering with evidence, along with federal charges related to illegal re-entry, he is being held in a county jail. He reportedly told police that he moved Hidalgo Calderon’s body from the home they shared to a wooded area.
It didn’t take long for the case to generate the Fox News headline of “Twice-deported illegal immigrant held in New York toddler’s disappearance, mom’s death,” and similar sensational takes by the New York Post and Daily Mail.
Thomas Feeley, director of the Buffalo field office for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the press that the case “sadly illustrates the real dangers to our communities,” adding that ICE “is determined to seek out and locate illegal aliens in New York.”
But the real danger lies in separating undocumented immigrants even more from the services they desperately need. According to Fuentes, Hidalgo Calderon sought help for domestic violence in mid-February, although what kind of help she sought and received has not been disclosed.
And while Fuentes and immigrant rights’ activists have praised the local sheriff for trying to foster trust and cooperation between undocumented immigrants and the rest of the community, these immigrants fear that a call for help can trigger a deportation proceeding.
Carly Fox, an organizer with the Worker Justice Center of New York in Rochester, tells of undocumented immigrants who ended up being deported after seeking assistance for domestic violence they experienced in the United States. A statement by one of these farmworkers was read aloud at the news conference.
It didn’t take long for the case to generate Fox News headlines.
“I think what happened to Selena is a result of what we are living right now with immigration,” said the farmworker. “We come from countries where we have been victims of violence and we seek refuge in the U.S. hoping it would be better here. But when we arrive, we don’t know our rights and we don’t know if we’ll be protected.”
Estela Calderon, Hidalgo Calderon’s mother and Owen’s grandmother, spoke of the devastating loss of her daughter—“full of life and that life was taken away”—and the unknown fate of her beloved grandson.
She also warned against turning the evil done by an individual into anti-immigrant sentiment, especially when it is directed at desperate and endangered people seeking safe haven in the United States.
“We came here because we are running from problems in our country—like poverty and violence,” says Estela Calderon, in her statement.
Hidalgo Calderon fled violence in Guatemala and crossed the Mexican border into the United States in the fall of 2016 as a seventeen-year old in search of a better, safer life. After crossing the border, she was soon detained for several months as an unaccompanied minor, says Fuentes. Estela Calderon and her three younger children later joined Selena Hidalgo Calderon in the United States. All were in the process of seeking asylum.
Fuentes, who helps connect immigrants with services, said in an interview that she first met Selena, Owen, and Estela last November at a western New York dairy farm where Selena and Estela were working for low wages and in bad conditions. It was there that Selena met Reyes, who is from Mexico.
“Estela got fired,” said Fuentes. “She spoke out about the housing conditions and about not getting paid minimum wage.”
Selena Hidalgo Calderon moved to another farm and then, less than a month before her death, settled with her son and Reyes at a third farm in the region. She managed to save enough to buy a car and was talking about baptizing Owen at a local Catholic church.
Instead, that church became the site for her memorial service.
In the aftermath of Hidalgo Calderon’s death, activists are increasing their push for legislation that would enable undocumented immigrants in New York to get driver’s licenses, rein in actions by ICE and the Border Patrol, and provide the resources that victims of domestic violence need.
“What happened to Selena is preventable,” said Fox.
James Goodman is a freelance writer based in Rochester, New York.