A Young Woman Campaigns to Keep ‘Dreamers’ Like Her in America

Itzel Hernandez is one of thousands of undocumented immigrants in NJ watching as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the legitimacy of a Trump administration decision to cancel the DACA program
Credit: Courtesy of Itzel Hernandez
Itzel Hernandez, seated far right, with other young campaigners for DACA.

Holding On is an occasional series on the effects of the Trump administration’s drive to remake immigration policy in the United States. Part One tells the story of “Dreamer” Itzel Hernandez, one of thousands of young undocumented immigrants in New Jersey who were brought to the United States as children. 

Once fearful she would never be able to attend college, Itzel Hernandez has made a good life for herself. She followed her bachelor’s degree with a fellowship and now works as an immigrant rights organizer. But she also knows that her world could collapse at any time.

“I feel that I’m just building a sandcastle,” said Hernandez, 26, of Red Bank. “And I’m just hoping that a wave doesn’t come by and knock everything down.”

Hernandez is one of an estimated 17,000 “Dreamers” living in New Jersey and 660,000 nationwide whose future is in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. “Dreamers” are young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children by their parents and who were given permission to work and remain in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, put in place in 2012 by former President Barack Obama.

The Trump administration announced in September 2017 that it was ending the program, but U.S. district courts halted that action. Yesterday, the nation’s highest court considered the appeal of three cases, deciding whether the courts have the right to review the administration’s decision to end DACA and, if so, whether ending DACA is legal.

In announcing DACA on June 15, 2012, Obama described it as a way to “mend our nation’s immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient, and more just — specifically for certain young people sometimes called ‘Dreamers.’ These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents — sometimes even as infants — and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license, or a college scholarship.”

Obama could have been speaking specifically about Hernandez.

Born in Mexico, she was brought by her mother to the U.S. when she was 10 years old to join her father. At first, she said, she didn’t appreciate America; she didn’t know anyone but her parents and had to learn a new language. But as she grew into a teenager, that changed.

In love with ‘the principles of America’

“I fell in love with the ideal and the principles of America,” she said. “You get a fair shake and you get a fair chance of making something of yourself. All those concepts and the history of the country, and the richness, and the ability to bring people from all around the world and have them pledge allegiance to the same flag, because they truly believe in those ideals, that’s one of the things that has always stuck with me … I believe in the principles that this country was founded on completely.”

Hernandez said her family did not necessarily come to the U.S. with thoughts of making it their permanent home. Her father first came over in 1994 because there were greater opportunities here to get a job. His plan was to earn enough money to return to Mexico, buy a taxicab and make a decent living there.

Credit: Sen. Bob Menendez/Flickr
A sign held by a “Dreamer” supporter at the U.S. Supreme Court rally on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2109

But 1994 was “a turning point” for Mexico, Hernandez said. There was a rebellion and takeover of government offices in the poor state of Chiapas that led to 300 people being killed. There were bombings linked to drug cartels in Mexico City. Two of the country’s wealthiest businessmen were kidnapped within a span of six weeks. And presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, campaigning as a reformer, was murdered.

Hernandez’s father returned to their home in Puebla, Mexico and bought a cab. But after a time, he was robbed at gunpoint and his cab stolen. “Two years of hard work gone, just like that,” she said.

Her father worked at whatever jobs he could and borrowed money to buy a new cab. That cab was also stolen, but it wasn’t until Hernandez was an adult and learned the full story from her mother: Gunmen tossed him from the cab, stabbed him and gave him 10 seconds to run before they would start shooting.

“The one thing that sticks out to me,” Hernandez said in recalling what her mother had told her, was that “they had him kneel down and they had a gun to his head, and he came home bleeding and crying. There wasn’t a lot of physical pain. The pain of it was that he really thought that he wasn’t ever going to see me again … He just kept telling them, ‘I have a little girl. I have a little girl. Please, just take the taxi, take the money. Take whatever you want, just let me go.’”

He was able to escape, but three weeks later another set of cab drivers was held up. One was shot and the other was set on fire inside his cab. Her father felt lucky to be alive and decided staying in Mexico was not safe. He returned to the U.S., and Hernandez and her mother joined him.

She believes she had it easier than many other children

That was 16 years ago, at the end of fifth grade. While Hernandez said it was hard at first — her mother was no longer home all day to take care of her and she had no other family or friends to support her — she thinks in hindsight that she probably had it easier than many other children brought here.

“Everything is new; everything is different; everything is confusing,” she said. “But the school that I went to, which is our public school, there were a lot of young children that were migrants. They had an ESL (English as a Second Language) program. They had other things in place, like a buddy system … That’s not the case for everybody.”

By high school, Hernandez had come to think of New Jersey as her home and began dreaming about her future here, including college and a career. In her senior year, she started to apply to colleges.

That’s when her parents told her that she was undocumented. It was a rude awakening. She could not qualify for financial aid and that meant she would never be able to afford college.

“I felt defeated, because I hadn’t met anybody in my status who was pursuing a college education,” Hernandez said. “I never, ever had anybody sit me down and say, ‘Hey this is a status. This is what it means to be undocumented. Here are the things that you can and cannot do … And so for me, when I found out, it just felt like there was nothing to hang on to. You’re just thinking there is nothing to reach out for.”

But Hernandez said she was lucky. Teachers, neighbors and other mentors encouraged her not to give up and “they actually found ways to make things happen.” Her high school gave her a scholarship that allowed her to go to community college. At the end of her two years, though, she again felt stuck because she could not afford to transfer to a four-year college to get a bachelor’s degree.

Credit: Sen. Bob Menendez/Flickr
Sen. Bob Menendez, a supporter of DACA, at the rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court in support of “Dreamers.”

And then the Obama administration implemented the DACA program.

“That was a game changer,” she said.

What DACA allowed

DACA allows certain young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents to remain in the country for two years at a time — the recipients must reapply and pay a $495 fee every other year — without fear of deportation. This allows those eligible to go to school and work in the U.S. while they are protected.

There are several eligibility criteria, including that the immigrants:

  • Were less than 31 years old and undocumented on June 15, 2012, the date the original order for DACA was issued;
  • Came to the U.S. before turning 16;
  • Have lived in the country since June 15, 2007 and were present on June 15, 2012 and when requesting DACA approval;
  • Are in school, finished high school or were honorably discharged from the U.S. military;
  • Have never been convicted of a felony, serious or multiple misdemeanors and do not pose a threat to national security or public safety.

What DACA does not do is provide an immigrant a path to citizenship. Unless Congress passes and the president signs an immigration reform law, there is no way for Hernandez or any other “Dreamer” to become a U.S. citizen.

“DACA has been incredibly helpful, but it didn’t go far enough,” said Hernandez. “And it didn’t provide, obviously, anything stable.”

At least, though, DACA gave Hernandez and others peace of mind, as well as an all-important Social Security card and an easier road to college. Former Gov. Chris Christie in 2013 signed a law allowing undocumented students to pay lower in-state tuition rates (lower than the cost for out-of-state students) and Hernandez got another scholarship. She enrolled in New Jersey City University in Jersey City, commuting more than an hour each way from Red Bank daily to take classes, and worked four part-time jobs to make enough to pay for her education.

“I was working from 5 in the morning and, if I was lucky, I was coming home by 11 o’clock at night and going back at 5 the next morning, but it was worth it,” said Hernandez, explaining she opened a gym at 5 a.m. and also worked for an insurance company, did event planning and, on weekends, worked for a caterer.

She graduated in 2017 with a dual bachelor’s degree in national security studies and political science, as well as minors in psychology and pre-law.

Learning to lobby

After graduating, Hernandez applied for and was one of only 20 young adults from across the country to be named to a Friends Committee on National Legislation Advocacy Corp Fellowship. She spent 10 days in Washington that August being trained in lobbying, then came back to New Jersey and lobbied congressional representatives on issues related to climate change.

When the fellowship ended in May 2018, she applied for a job with the American Friends Service Committee. She currently works as an immigrant rights organizer for the organization.

In her job, Hernandez works with young undocumented immigrants, advising them and helping them to advocate for their rights. Yesterday, she traveled to Washington, D.C. with other young people to rally outside the Supreme Court during oral arguments in the combined case whose outcome will impact their lives.

Credit: Courtesy of Itzel Hernandez
Itzel Hernandez, third from left, and other “Dreamers” met U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, center, in Washington, D.C.

“It’s up to the mercy of the court,” Hernandez said, noting that, even if the justices rule in favor of the Trump administration, there may be an opening for further legal challenges. “It highlights why there needs to be a legislative solution to this problem, because even in the best-case scenario who’s to say that the administration doesn’t then go back and find the proper way to ‘terminate’ the program. It’s not the constitutionality of the program that the court is ruling on, it is on the termination of the program.”

No new applicants are being accepted under the current DACA programs. For those already in the program, as long as they reapply every two years and pay $495, they are OK. But the impact of the court’s ruling in New Jersey will go beyond the 17,000 current recipients. Another 53,000 are eligible for DACA, according to the state attorney general’s office. The state filed a friend of the court brief in the case. In announcing that brief in September, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said that ending DACA would be “catastrophic” for New Jersey and the nation.

“This is about real lives, real families and real futures,” he said. “Dreamers are a vital part of the social, economic and cultural fabric of our state.”

Court ruling not expected for months

The court is not expected to rule before the spring, and most likely not until next June, before its current term ends.

What happens to the “Dreamers” if the court rules that it had the authority to review the administration’s actions, that DACA is unlawful and was rightly terminated?

Hernandez, like many others, tries not to think about that.

“I have good days and I have really bad days; really, really bad days, where you just wonder,” she said. “And how much longer can you put up with it, how much longer do you wait for them to not even do anything other than acknowledge your humanity? The one thing that I do know for a fact is that I know I’m not alone.”

She said traveling to Washington with a group she has organized and coming together with others from across the country to rally is one way to cope.

Credit: Sen. Bob Menendez/Flickr
Rally in support of “Dreamers” at U.S. Supreme Court, Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Nov. 12

“That’s one of the reasons why I’m here,” Hernandez said in an interview from the capital. “I think one of the things that keeps me going is to see the resiliency and the strength of undocumented youth and undocumented immigrants … If they don’t give up, I can’t give up.”

Still, there are those bad days.

“But yeah, like anything else, you know, there’s days where my anxiety is out of control, when I find myself testing my parents multiple times throughout the day to see if they’re OK,” Hernandez added.

Afraid to return to Mexico

Going back to Mexico is not an option, she said, adding that it is still not safe for her and her family. She told of getting “advance parole” approval to travel out of the U.S., which is available to DACA recipients, to visit her relatives there and being quickly whisked from one home to another the day her cousin was kidnapped.

As Hernandez tells the story, her cousin, who was 18, had been standing outside a store when a van drove up, men got out, hit him with a bat, threw a hood over his head and tossed him in the van. They drove him around before eventually letting him go about four miles outside of town after taking his identification so they would know where he lived. They promised to return and kill him if he alerted police.

“They mistook him for somebody else, but they put a gun to his head, and he is a teenager,” Hernandez said. “And so when I actually knew what had happened, I’m probably in shock. I never heard of anybody getting kidnapped. That’s insane … I just remember realizing right then ‘this is obviously a thing; this just happens here and it’s common knowledge’ because nobody was freaking out. And when I asked him, he was just like, ‘This is the second or third time that has happened.’”

She also explained that people tap into the gas pipelines under towns like the one where her extended family lives, which frequently leads to explosions and fires that have killed scores of people. And even the police aren’t safe: A half dozen officers were killed last year.

“So when you can kill a police officer and get away with it, yeah, there is nothing left for anybody else to do,” Hernandez said. “I would legitimately fear for my family if we ever had to go back.”

There would be another heartbreak if the family were deported: Hernandez has an 11-year-old brother who was born in the U.S. and is a citizen. Like her at that age, her brother has not been told the full truth about the family’s situation.

“I don’t think he fully understands,” she said. “He has an idea that there’s something, but he hasn’t put it together. And I can’t bring myself to fully explain to him how this fragile family structure could change. He’ll figure it out at some point, and hopefully not because one day somebody gets detained. But I just, I know how intense I get thinking that somebody may detain my mom and my dad and I just can’t imagine what an 11-year-old would think.”

The shock of learning about her status

Hernandez’s reticence to tell her brother about their family situation is colored, in part, by what she felt when she learned about her own status. Initially, she was angry that her parents had kept the information from her.

“It took me many, many years to realize that it was out of love, and not out of malice,” she said. “It was so I wouldn’t limit my dreams, I wouldn’t limit myself, so I wouldn’t question my potential.”

Hernandez said that the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies have not made her change her mind about pursuing her dreams in America. There are so many examples of Americans who feel differently, including her borough council’s 2017 vote to declare Red Bank an inclusive city that supports immigrants and the overwhelming support among Americans for a pathway to citizenship for the “Dreamers.” Various polls register that support at from 62% to 86%.

“What he’s (Trump) saying is obviously horrendous and it’s terrifying and it’s scary, there’s no question about it, and the damage that he’s carrying out is without question legitimate and tangible, but my faith lies in common Americans,” she said. “I know that he’s not representative of the country … And so for me, obviously we fight back against the rhetoric. I organize to protect my community, to teach other young people their rights and what they should know. But my faith in America hasn’t been shaken.”

Read a report of yesterday’s “Dreamers’” rally at the U.S. Supreme Court by Brenda Flanagan of NJTV News.