As Harvey’s wrath descended on Texas, Alonso Guillén’s father begged him not to make the 120-mile trek to the Houston area to rescue those stranded in floodwaters.
“It is too dangerous,” his father pleaded, Guillén’s brother recalled.
But when it came to helping others, Guillén, a 31-year-old Mexican immigrant, was headstrong, relatives told The Washington Post. On Aug. 29, Guillén 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 Houston suburb. Once there, they set out on five boats, using a walkie-talkie app to identify people who needed rescuing.
Late that night, as Guillén 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 Guillén 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.
On Friday, searchers found Carreon’s body. On Sunday, Guillén’s body floated to the surface, his brother, Jesus Guillén said.
“He died wanting to serve,” Jesus Guillén, a 36-year-old truck driver from Lufkin, told The Washington Post. “He could have stayed home watching the news on television, but he chose to go help.”
Guillén 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. Their stories struck a chord with immigrant communities in Texas and beyond. Relatives said Guillén was a “dreamer,” a recipient of Obama-era protections that President Trump is preparing to end. He came to the United States from Mexico when he was 15.
The Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has allowed nearly 800,000 people to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation. On Tuesday, Trump plans to announce that his administration will stop renewing DACA work permits, The Post reported. He is expected to delay enforcement for six months, giving Congress time to find a legislative solution.
A group of 10 states — led by Guillén’s home state of Texas — have vowed to sue the administration if Trump does not end the program. DACA opponents argue that the program takes jobs away from citizens and legal U.S. residents, and that its creation marked an unconstitutional use of President Barack Obama’s powers.
Others, including Republican leaders, have urged Trump not to terminate the program, saying “dreamers” should not be punished for the decisions made by their parents. “These are kids who know no other country,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told a Wisconsin radio station.
As news of Guillén’s death spread over the Labor Day weekend, his name became a rallying cry among immigrant advocates pushing Trump to preserve DACA.
Guillén’s aunt, Sandra Guillén, told The Post 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 Guillén, 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 United States and bury her son.
But on Monday afternoon, U.S. Customs and Border Protection tweeted that it had “offered to work with the Mexican Consulate and nongovernmental organizations” to allow her entry to the United States to attend her son’s funeral.
By Monday night, the mother was on her way to Texas and was scheduled to arrive early Tuesday morning, just in time for the burial, relatives told The Post.
“When we are with God, there are no borders,” Rita Ruiz de Guillén 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 Guillén’s youngest brother, who was deported from the United States about five years ago, will not be able to cross the border for the arrangements. (Alonso Guillén’s father is a legal resident, and his brother Jesus is a U.S. citizen.)
Carreon, Alonso Guillén’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 United States at age 8, overstaying his visa with his family, BuzzFeed News reported. He became a permanent resident when he got married.
When Hurricane Harvey struck last week, Alonso Guillén started posting weather updates on Facebook. “This isn’t over yet, so be prepared and calm,” he wrote in one post Aug. 28.
Before he told his brother of his plans, Jesus Guillén saw him standing in front of his neighbor’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 Guillén said. “He liked helping people.”
Alonso Guillén, whose radio name was “DJ Ocho” was known for his generosity in the Lufkin community. If a friend or neighbor needed anything — a wheelchair, money for a surgery, a car fix — he would lend a helping hand, using his reach through his radio show to rally support for those in need.
“He did these things unconditionally, without charging anything,” his brother said.
He was a skilled athlete and swimmer, his brother said. He grew up in a Mexican city along the Rio Grande, where children learn to swim against the strong tides of the river, as BuzzFeed News pointed out.
But, Jesus Guillén said, “Everything happened so fast. The current was too strong.”
When his relatives learned Alonso Guillen and Carreon were missing, in the early morning hours Wednesday, they immediately prepared to search for him. Dozens of Guillén’s and Carreon’s relatives traveled to scour the floodwaters each day. Friends and strangers flocked to Houston from Lufkin, where a quarter of the population of about 35,000 is Hispanic or Latino, according to census records.
Alonso Guillén was described by his friends and family as a “happy soul” who loved soccer and music. His nickname, “Ocho,” carried over from his childhood, when the young boy had trouble saying “Alonso,” his brother said.
He worked as a disc jockey at dance clubs on weekends, but he did not drink or smoke, his brother said. He wore a cross on his chest at all times and served as a model for his siblings and friends, Jesus Guillén said.
When he received DACA, his brother said, “He felt more free.” He got his driver’s license, he bought a house, he advanced his radio career.
“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.”
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