Dreaming American: Having overstayed her tourist visa, Santa Fe resident Lupita Hernandez is seeking legal U.S. residency so she won’t be separated from her U.S.-born children.

Her first attempt under a law protecting abused women failed. Now her only hope lies in the halls of Congress.

By Kate Nash
Tribune Reporter

Lupita Hernandez took a seat in her lawyer’s office, already half knowing what the letter with her name on it would say.

Hernandez’s lawyer had summoned her to Albuquerque to deliver the bad news in person: Her application to become a legal U.S. resident had been denied.

In an instant, with three pieces of paper, the life Hernandez had built in Santa Fe over 11 years began to wobble.

She no longer had the legal right to stay with the family she has created. She no longer felt free to take her two U.S.-born, American-citizen children to school or the doctor. She began to worry her family might be torn apart every time someone knocked on her door.

“The whole world fell on top of me,” the 42-year-old says of that day in February. “I’m in no man’s land.”

Hernandez’s immigration story isn’t typical. She came here legally on a 10-year tourist visa.

And she didn’t come for a better-paying job. By Mexican standards, she had a good one in her homeland – as a college-educated counselor in a Veracruz state prison.

Instead, she moved to Santa Fe to be with her then-boyfriend, who later would become her husband, then the man who abused her, then her ex-husband and her worst regret.

He was deported to Mexico, but Hernandez has no desire to return to San Andrés Tuxtla, Veracruz, where she might cross his path. She applied for legal residency under the Violence Against Women Act, one of more than 38,000 women who have sought protection since the law was passed in 1997.

But that door now appears closed, and her anxiety is rising.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents recently completed a sweep of Santa Fe, targeting criminal immigrants and unleashing a wave of fear even in law-abiders.

Hernandez, one of an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 immigrants in New Mexico without documents or who are in the process of getting legal status, says her biggest hope is that the immigration debate boiling in Congress will provide her with a path to legalization.

As she waits for lawmakers to act, she’s left wondering and worrying.

“I’m not sure what my future will be. The only thing I want is to stay here. Eleven years have gone by. What would I return to in Veracruz? What kind of life would I give my family there?”

For love, not money

In San Andres Tuxtla, Hernandez counseled mentally ill patients in one of Veracruz’s biggest prisons. For eight years, she washed their hair, bathed them, took them to therapy. She was surrounded by rapists, a mother who killed her two children, drug runners – 1,200 criminals total.

Unlike millions of other Mexicans who have left their country, Hernandez never seriously considered moving to the United States. But in 1995, she left those patients, that jail. She packed up and said farewell to her family, her favorite foods, her own bed.

All for the man she loved.

With a tourist visa in hand, she flew to the United States and settled in Santa Fe.

At first, Hernandez kept herself busy running her household. She became pregnant with her daughter, Ivanna, then married her boyfriend.

Slowly, she adjusted to the newness of Santa Fe, of the United States, of everything coming at her in rapid-fire English.

And she began to endure what she would never have expected: abuse at the hands of the man she thought loved her. Hernandez says he hit her often, even when she was more than six months pregnant with their daughter.

“He promised me heaven and all its stars, but I never imagined it would be like this,” she said.

“Those are the things you can’t forget.”

She was too scared to press charges, something that to this day gives her heartburn.

Her salvation came from the U.S. government, which deported her husband after a series of arrests for alcohol-related offenses, according to Hernandez’s lawyer.

After a divorce and a custody fight over Ivanna, which cost her thousands she didn’t have, Hernandez cobbled herself back together and attended a therapy group for abused women – something she still does.

For a while, she had pretty good luck finding American employers in the tony neighborhoods of Santa Fe – families who offered work mopping their floors or helping with their children.

But eventually, the most steady employers moved away. Others began asking her for a Social Security number. Jobs were just temporary. Hernandez looked for a reliable paycheck cleaning houses, a chore she still does when she can get the work.

Then she met a new boyfriend, a house painter who had come to the United States without papers. He asked not to be identified for this story due to his immigration status.

They grew as close as husband and wife, although they are not married. His work brought financial stability. Almost two years ago, they had a son, Ian.

The golden dream

The life Hernandez has built in the United States revolves around her two children and her effort to join them as a legal U.S. resident.

Ian, almost 2, is a giggly handful on his best days and a screaming bundle who can’t sit through an hourlong Mass on his worst.

He was recently diagnosed as developmentally disabled, something Hernandez says would be much harder to deal with in Mexico, because he can get speech therapy and other help more easily here.

Medicare helps pay for part of Ian’s treatments. So does the money Hernandez and her boyfriend earn, about $18,000 last year.

Ivanna, 10, attends public school in Santa Fe. Unlike in Mexico, her mother doesn’t have to pay tuition or buy books.

Hernandez has also enrolled Ivanna in dance classes – jazz, hip-hop, ballet, tap – and voice lessons.

While they paid for the dance classes – $2 for low-income students – Hernandez and her partner also saved to buy a trailer home, which they did in December. That is no small feat in Santa Fe.

“The golden dream is really a house, but this is a place to start,” Hernandez said.

The immaculate home isn’t large – three bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, nothing fancy.

At the same time, Hernandez and her partner scrimped to pay the legal fees for her immigration case – $600, $800, $1,200 at a time.

Last June, just as they began to consider buying a home, the first wave of bad news hit. Her petition for residency had been denied because her ex-husband wasn’t a legal U.S. citizen or permanent legal resident when she applied for protection – a requirement under the law.

Hernandez and her attorney appealed. In February, the government again denied her plea to stay.

Since then, Hernandez has struggled with depression.

She tries to live as normally as possible, with her future, her heart and her extended family split between two countries.

The pull of family

Hernandez regularly wires money to her hometown of San Andr‚s Tuxtla – $125 some months; $200 in others, when work is good.

The cash is like gold dust in the lives of her Mexican family. Her brother got shoes that blunt the pain of standing for hours on a cigar-factory floor; a grandmother was given a decent burial; her father feasted on fried chicken for his birthday.

Leaving was hard for Hernandez, but going back presents a terrible dilemma. If she does, she risks never seeing her children again. If she doesn’t, she risks never seeing her parents.

Her mother is ailing. Her father is aging.

“My mother still doesn’t understand why I left,” she said. “And it is hard. They called me to say my grandmother had died, and I couldn’t go back. And my two uncles died, and I couldn’t go back.”

When her mother underwent surgery late last year for a tumor on her back, Hernandez was left to fret from afar, more than 1,000 miles and an international boundary away.

While she dreams of temporary permission to leave the United States, she knows her immigration status would make returning difficult. She follows the debate in Congress, looking for a glimmer of hope.

Hernandez wants Ivanna and Ian to meet their grandmother. She wants to see her mother herself for the first time in more than a decade and, maybe, for the last time.

“Do I stay or go?,” she said. “This is my mother.”

A world of what ifs

For now, with so much up in the air, Hernandez and her family have to live as if their lives weren’t on shaky ground, as if what they’ve built isn’t as wobbly as they feel, as if they couldn’t be uprooted at any moment.

In many ways, her emotions are similar to those of other immigrants who wonder what the future will bring.

She tries not to think of the what ifs, all the while planning for them.

Hernandez has a network of people in place, friends who could take care of her kids and her home if she received a deportation order. Others look out for “la migra” – immigration officers – and spread the word on their whereabouts.

Hernandez dreads the possibility of being separated from her children, but she also fears seeing her ex-husband if she had to return to San Andres Tuxtla.

More than anything, she wants an inner peace she knows deep down might never come.

“I want to work peacefully; I want to live peacefully,” she said, her eyes spilling tears.

“I don’t want to think that today everything is fine, and tomorrow they could come and arrest me – take me away – and I wouldn’t know what would happen with my children.”

Published May 25, 2007.