The past couple of months have been tough for undocumented immigrants in Houston.
In late August, Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas city, killing dozens of people and displacing hundreds of thousands. Days later, the Trump administration ended the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals or DACA program, putting nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants at risk of losing their jobs and being deported when their protections expire.
“Here in Houston, we had a lot of folks who lost everything during the hurricane,” Hernandez told HuffPost earlier this month. “What does it mean to have to replace everything in your house, while also trying to get the $450 needed to file the [DACA renewal] application? So it’s been extremely challenging for undocumented youth across the country, but especially here in Houston.”
In the weeks after the hurricane, the group’s three staff members and dozens of volunteers rushed to help the Houston community by joining relief efforts, helping out in local shelters and raising funds for undocumented families, many of whom are ineligible for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It was a natural extension of the work the Houston group has been doing for the past four years, helping undocumented youth by hosting free legal clinics for DACA applicants or organizing protests and other actions to promote local policies that support undocumented families.
At a time when the Trump administration is regularly pushing anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies ― from repeatedly referring to undocumented immigrants as criminals to cracking down on the community with blunt immigration enforcement tactics ― the group’s work has never felt more urgent.
DACA recipients will begin to lose protections in greater numbers after March 5 ― and some already have ― unless Congress steps in.
“Our community isn’t giving up. We’re going to continue to push for a clean Dream Act, but also make sure the whole undocumented community is empowered and protected,” Hernandez said, referring to legislation that would grant legal status to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors. “If you’re undocumented and feel fearful: Join us, reach out to us. We want to hear from you.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re one of nearly 700,000 DACA recipients in the country, and one of more than 100,000 in Texas alone, whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children. What was your experience growing up undocumented in America?
I never fit the Dreamer narrative: I graduated from high school and had a landscaping business, but I never went to university. A lot of times, stories focus on Dreamers’ 4.0 GPAs, as perfectly assimilated American undocumented youth. I never fit that narrative ― and most people who came through our doors [at United We Dream] didn’t either.
I got to this country at two years old, from Puebla, Mexico, where my parents are from. We lived in California, New York and more, but we moved to Houston 17 years ago.
I love this city ― but when I was in school, I never got any guidance. There was never an expectation for me to continue my higher education. The expectation was that undocumented immigrants come here to do construction, landscaping or clean other people’s houses. That was difficult for me.
The expectation was that undocumented immigrants come here to do construction, landscaping or clean other people’s houses. Oscar Hernandez, Houston chapter of United We Dream
In school, I had no help knowing what was available to undocumented folks. I didn’t know the Dream Act existed, or that I could even go to college. When I graduated, I started my own landscaping business. It went well, I made more money than I do now as an organizer. But it wasn’t fulfilling; I felt like I could do more.
When I got my DACA, the first thing I did was apply to work at United We Dream as a community organizer. Carolina [Ramirez] and I started the Houston chapter in 2013. I felt at home in this community.
United We Dream Houston supports the local undocumented community in many ways ― pointing people to free or low-cost legal immigration support, teaching people to know their rights. What campaign are you most proud of as an organizer?
[Around two years ago], our focus was on ending a program allowing the sheriff’s department to collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers. At the time, a white Republican named Ron Hickman was the sheriff. Our campaign was about letting people know what the program was, and who was responsible.
Leading up to the election of now-Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, we went door to door, talking to people about what was happening, what candidates’ stances were, so they could make an informed vote. Sheriff Gonzalez ended the program at the beginning of this year.
President Donald Trump has implemented a number of anti-immigrant policies ― from cracking down on undocumented immigrants to ending DACA. What has changed about your organizing work since Trump was elected?
The sentiment around applying for DACA became more scary. What does it mean for this administration to have your data, your fingerprints, photo, address, considering the president ran a campaign on mass deportation and getting rid of DACA?
They’re trying to make it seem that we’re criminals, trying to dehumanize us. Oscar Hernandez
What do you wish more U.S. citizens knew about undocumented immigrants?
There’s a misconception that people are undocumented by choice ― like “Why don’t you just become a citizen?” Immigration law is so complex and changes frequently.
And it’s not like what people say on the news, who make it seem like we’re criminals. The laws currently in place criminalize our community: By taking away DACA, for instance, you criminalize undocumented youth who used to have the ability to drive to work or school ― and now could get arrested, because without DACA, they can’t have a license or they can’t have a work permit. They’re trying to make it seem that we’re criminals, trying to dehumanize us.
If people would just sit down and talk, and really get to know undocumented immigrants, it would change a lot. They would have a better understanding and realize the misconceptions they have.