GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At University of Florida’s International Center, 23-year-old Michell Hernandez is a student assistant hard at work. While she appears to be every bit the typical student, her journey here was anything but.
“Growing up, I always knew I was undocumented,” Hernandez said. “It was interesting that I’d hear from other students who didn’t find out until they applied to college or wanted to get a license.”
In 2001, Hernandez was just 3 years old when she crossed the Mexican border with her mother and little sister, who was a year-and-a-half old at the time. Her father had crossed by himself earlier.
While Hernandez was too young to remember the experience, her mother told her the children were separated to go a safer route, meaning the two girls were without their mother. The mere thought of her not knowing if her daughters were safe brings Hernandez to tears.
“She had to go through that by herself. I was really scared for her,” Hernandez said. “It’s been scary to think about being separated from my parents ever since.”
(UNCUT: Full interview below with Michell Hernandez)
While she doesn’t remember crossing the border, Hernandez does remember living with the constant fear of her family being discovered. Even a simple, unexpected knock at the door was frightening.
“Even going to school, thinking of my parents being out and then wondering if they would be taking them and I wouldn’t see them,” Hernandez said. “I tried to blend in and be as American as the other kids.”
As a student at UF, that fear surfaced again in 2017. That’s when the Department of Homeland Security announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, wasn’t legal and would be phased out. Last year, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision against the department -- effectively keeping DACA.
Even with the legal victory, Hernandez said she still couldn’t breathe a true sigh of relief. The stress overall took a toll on her mental being.
“Because it’s still only temporary and I know that it can be taken away,” Hernandez said. “I began to have really hard thoughts constantly being thrown around and depending on the government to decide where I moved and where I stayed.”
When Hernandez thinks of her family’s plight in coming to the United States, the emotion still pours out.
“I personally cannot imagine how hard that was,” Hernandez said tearing up. “I wish they hadn’t had to make that choice and that they could’ve been OK in Mexico. I am grateful that I am here. I wish that people had the choice to stay in addition to having the freedom to move.”
Hernandez says her mother went 15 years without seeing her own mother because of their decision to cross the border. While it was a hard decision, it was a choice that gave her a better life and hope for others praying for the same chance, no matter their circumstance.
“I think that all immigrants should be able to whatever kind of life they’d like to have, not just ‘Dreamers,’” Hernandez said. “I don’t think you have to discover (the cure to) cancer or want to be the next president to be seen as a person. Just because they’re not seen as productive or as valuable to the United States economy, doesn’t mean they’re not people. And don’t want the same damn freedom.”
The term “Dreamers” refers to people who would benefit from either the DREAM Act or DACA.
Hernandez’s family has submitted applications for citizenship. Out of fear for their safety, Hernandez opted not to share family photos.
“I think I look forward to the day where people don’t need documentation in order to move and be seen as a human being,” Hernandez said. “And to have rights and not be criminalized or punished in any way for wanting to move to different places. I don’t want to depend on a government’s compassion because governments change.”