By Liz Goodwin
Maria Hernandez is one of six people Yahoo News has interviewed for our series on Americans who gained green cards under Ronald Reagan’s 1986 law that legalized 2.7 million illegal immigrants. On Wednesday, we profile Hector Ramirez, who co-founded a steel supply company with his four brothers.
When Maria Hernandez was 8 years old and living with her family in Santa Ana, Calif., her father went missing. Rumors flew that immigration authorities had raided his workplace and that he may have been among the many who were arrested and subsequently deported.
“When I heard, my heart just dropped,” Hernandez recalled. When her father didn’t come home that night, her mother realized the rumors were true.
At the time, said Hernandez, she didn’t know she also lacked legal immigration status. While her younger siblings were born in America and were citizens, she joked that she was the only one “made in Mexico.” Her parents had crossed over first, seeking a better life, and she followed six months later—still just a baby—with a relative. (By that point, the young Hernandez didn’t recognize her own mother, who, she says was crushed.)
It was while she was in junior high school that Hernandez realized she was also undocumented. “I remember worrying about it when it was registration time [at school], because I was always afraid they would ask for documentation and I wouldn’t have it,” she said.
A few years after her father managed to re-enter the country and rejoin his family, immigration reform passed Congress. Hernandez, at that time 12 years old, and her parents were among the 2.7 million people eventually granted legal status under the 1986 program.
It was then, said Hernandez, that she finally felt safe. “I felt a huge relief, because … I was [always] afraid that I wasn’t going to be able to go to school.”
Hernandez not only stayed in school, she also became an elementary school reading teacher in Santa Ana, where she lives with her husband and three children in a home, filled with family photos, that they own. She became a U.S. citizen in 1995.
But Hernandez didn’t take the straightest path to her career. She was young when she married and had her first child, so she waited about eight years after graduating high school to begin college. She enrolled at a local community college and then won a scholarship to get her bachelor’s in education at Chapman University. She’s been teaching for 14 years.
Santa Ana, in Orange County, is nearly 80 percent Hispanic, and some of Hernandez’s students are the children of illegal immigrants or are undocumented themselves. She said she tries to use her own experience as a way to inspire them to work hard.
“I say, ‘Look, you’re here to help your parents, better your life. If I did it, you can do it,’” she said.
Hernandez said she hopes the nation’s politicians will pass immigration reform. She empathizes especially with the children of illegal immigrants who lack status—often called “dreamers”—because she was in the same position as a child.
“Now it seems like whoever is out there making all these laws, it seems like they don’t want us here no matter what,” Hernandez said, referencing the many failed immigration reform proposals of the past 10 years.
“I understand that with every culture or country there’s people who are here to do well and be productive members of society, and there’s people who lose focus of that and seek the easy way out and cause trouble, and that’s terrible,” she added. “But most of us are here to work hard.”
Hernandez said she’s grateful that her parents made sure she was legalized under the '86 law, which allowed her to do what she loves—teach.
“I’m very blessed,” she said, “I really am.”