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Hurricane Harvey

A ‘dreamer’ dies trying to save Harvey victims, days before Trump ends deportation protections

Alonso Guillen died in Houston when the rescue boat he was crewing crashed into a bridge and he was hurled into floodwaters

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 1:38pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 1:38pm

As Harvey’s wrath descended on Texas, Alonso Guillen’s father begged him not to make the 200km trek to the Houston area to rescue those stranded in the storm’s floodwaters.

“It is too dangerous,” his father pleaded, Guillen’s brother recalled.

But when it came to helping others, Guillen, a 31-year-old Mexican immigrant, was headstrong, relatives said.

On August 29, Guillen left his job as a radio host early to pile into a white Chevy Tahoe with a group a friends. The volunteers from Lufkin made the drive to Cyprus Creek in Spring, a suburb of Houston. Once there, they set out on five boats, using a walkie-talkie app to identify people who needed rescuing.

Trump ends DACA, exposing young immigrants to deportation

Late that night, as Guillen and his group were on their way to pluck survivors from an apartment complex, their rescue boat slammed into an Interstate 45 bridge. The collision hurled Guillen and his friend, Tomas Carreon, 25, also of Lufkin, into the rushing floodwaters. A third person in the boat was later rescued, grasping onto a tree, the Houston Chronicle reported.

He could have stayed home watching the news on television, but he chose to go help
Alonso Guillen’s father, Jesus Guillen

On Friday, searchers found Carreon’s body. And on Sunday, Guillen’s body floated to the surface, his brother, Jesus Guillén said.

“He died wanting to serve,” said Jesus Guillen, a 36-year-old truck driver from Lufkin. “He could have stayed home watching the news on television, but he chose to go help.”

Guillen and Carreon were among at least 60 people who had died as of Monday afternoon in connection to the storm, a number expected to increase. And their stories struck a chord with immigrant communities in Texas and beyond. Relatives said Guillen was a “dreamer,” a recipient of Obama-era protections that President Donald Trump is preparing to end. He came to the US from Mexico as an illegal immigrant when he was 15 years old.

The Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has allowed nearly 800,000 people to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation. On Tuesday, announced that his administration would stop renewing DACA work permits, delaying enforcement for six months to give Congress time to find a legislative solution.

A group of 10 states - led by Guillen’s home state of Texas - have vowed to sue the administration if Trump does not end the program.

As news of Guillen’s death spread over the Labour Day weekend, his name became a rallying cry among immigrant advocates pushing Trump to preserve DACA.

Guillen’s aunt, Sandra Guillen, said she would like to send a message to Trump in her nephew’s name, pleading that the administration continue the protections.

“They’re good people, they’re hard workers,” she said of DACA recipients. “They’re not coming to take anyone’s jobs away.”

Rita Ruiz de Guillen, Alonso’s mother, is a Mexican national who still lives across the Rio Grande in Piedras Negras, Mexico. She initially thought she would not be able to obtain the visa necessary to enter the US and bury her son.

But on Monday afternoon, US Customs and Border Protection tweeted that it had “offered to work with the Mexican Consulate and nongovernmental organisations” to allow her entry to the US in order to attend her son’s funeral.“

“When we are with God, there are no borders,” Rita Ruiz de Guillen told the Houston Chronicle before she left Mexico. “Man made borders on this earth.”

“I’ve lost a great son, you have no idea,” she also said. “I’m asking God to give me strength.”

Alonso Guillen’s youngest brother, who was deported from the US about five years ago, will not be able to cross the border for the arrangements. Alonso Guillen’s father is a legal resident, and his brother Jesus is a US citizen.

Carreon, Alonso Guillen’s friend who also died trying to rescue Harvey victims, also grew up as an undocumented immigrant. Originally from Piedras Negras, Mexico, he came to the US at age eight, but became a legal permanent resident when he got married.

When Hurricane Harvey struck last week, Alonso Guillen started posting weather updates on Facebook. “This isn’t over yet, so be prepared and calm,” he wrote in one post on August 28.

Before he told his brother of his plans, Jesus Guillen saw him standing in front of his neighbour’s house, looking at a boat. The brother immediately knew he was planning on heading to Houston, to volunteer in rescue missions.

“That’s how he was,” Jesus Guillen said. “He liked helping people.”

“He worked hard at everything he did and made life a little more enjoyable for everyone around him,” the radio station Y-100 wrote in a Facebook tribute. “A truly selfless man, he spent the last hours of his life helping others in a time of need.”