Life Undocumented

Isabel Hernandez on Immigration in the Era of Trump

By Katie McCluer

(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

Isabel Hernandez gripped her phone in her right hand as she stared down at the bright screen, unable to believe the words she was reading. Smartphones have this uncanny optimism as they announce you’ve received a new text message with a sunny chirp. This was not good news. Her coworker, whom she’d worked with for two years at least, would not be showing up to work tomorrow. He’d been picked up by the police. This was not because he did anything wrong, per se, but because he didn’t have the proper paperwork. Antonio lived in the Bay Area for the past 30 years, where he had a family, a home, and a career. Despite all of this, he was still, technically, undocumented.

Hernandez had become close with Antonio’s wife over the years, and his wife was the one who reported the news.

“[She] texted me and told me they all got deported,” said Hernandez, speaking in an interview with the BCC Voice. Hernandez is soft-spoken, and she stuttered over her words a bit as she shared this. She explained that she was nervous, and I did my best to reassure her that she was safe.

I knew, though, that I could only do so much. After weeks of searching for an interviewee, Hernandez emailed me back, agreeing to be interviewed only under the circumstance of absolute anonymity. We couldn’t even meet in person, only over the phone. This is understandable, given the current political climate. Since Donald Trump took office, immigration of any kind has been under scrutiny. Hernandez has a right to be scared.

The night Trump won the vote, Hernandez and her partner cried together, wondering what the future would bring. As she pictured four years of Trump, she thought,“What is going to happen to me?”

Eleven years ago, Hernandez left her family and friends behind in the hopes of a brighter future. In Mexico, she was forced to drop out of high school to take care of her family, so college was out of the question. Her parents focused their attention on her two older brothers, and Hernandez was left to figure out life on her own. “We used to drink a lot…I mean a lot,” said Hernandez of her previous life. After months and months of heavy drinking with her friends, Hernandez knew she wanted something better for herself, but saw no way out. Feeling helpless in her situation, she turned to drastic measures. She attempted suicide. “I tried to commit suicide, but I survived. It was kind of a miracle.” After that, she realized she had to change her life. She moved to the Bay Area with the intention of starting anew.

The plan was to live in the United States for six months before moving overseas. Hernandez made her way to the Bay Area and from there, planned to live with a family member in Spain. “I have a relative in Spain. She agreed to take me in.” Hernandez thought it would be easier to live with family, but in the end, she fell in love with California. “I liked it here,” she said, “and then 6 months passed, and I’ve been here for 11 years now.”

When she arrived in the U.S, Hernandez knew she wanted to go to school. But at that time, her undocumented status was an obstacle.

“It’s really difficult trying to go to school. It took me hours trying to enroll and explain my situation,” said Hernandez, “It’s difficult to talk about this [being undocumented] openly because there’s kind of a stigma…you feel ashamed about it.”

In California at least, things have changed for the better since Hernandez first had to enroll in school. “They’re more aware of undocumented students now. They’re helping fill out applications and find scholarships…so that’s way better.” Unfortunately, this awareness does not extend to many other states in the U.S.

Hernandez tells me there’s a lot of anxiety that comes with being undocumented. To make matters worse, she has to be careful about expressing this anxiety, for fear of exposing herself. “You must always be aware of what you are doing. Seeing a policeman makes me feel anxious and watching the news when Trump came into office gave me a lot of anxiety. It was horrible. We were watching to see what he would do or if he had a force for removal of undocumented immigrants.”

During the Bush administration, Hernandez was walking down the street when she saw some guys get picked up in the Mission District. She froze, not knowing what to do next, and then forced herself to look away and take a deep breath. Hernandez thought to herself, “OK. That could be me,” and continued walking. That was all she could do.

While being undocumented has its drawbacks, overall Hernandez is satisfied with her life in the East Bay. I asked her if she misses her hometown, and she giggled and said, “Mostly I miss the food…I miss my parents…but…I’m just really happy here, to be honest.” She won a scholarship from City College of San Francisco. “It was the proudest moment of my life,” she said. “My effort, all the time I studied, it paid off.” Hernandez studies English at a city college in the East Bay, has a long-term partner, and is proud of the work she does as a line cook in a restaurant. “Most line cooks are men,” Hernandez laughs, “so people look at me like ‘No you can’t, and I’m like, ‘Watch me!’”

For a while, Hernandez was learning to play the cello at City College in San Francisco. From the first time she heard a cello she knew she wanted to play. “I’m a weird person; I love classical music,” Hernandez chuckles, “I went to music school, and it was very cool. I’m not a very good cellist though.” Hernandez laughs to herself again, “But yeah, I love classical music. Bach is my favorite.”

According to Hernandez, looking for a job was easier than enrolling in school because she had friends looking out for her. “I have a lot of friends, and they helped connect me with work. If they saw, ‘looking for a line cook’ or ‘looking for a waitress,’ they would call me.”

On the other hand, Hernandez is limited in the kind of work she would likely be hired to do. She said, “I have a friend who is undocumented, and she works at Google. But, she’s from Romania, so they are not as picky with people from Europe [compared to] people from Latin America.”

“It’s the skin color. That’s the difference. It’s all about skin color and who has the right color and who doesn’t.” Hernandez told me she didn’t realize America was so racist. She is disappointed that Trump uses racism as a political instrument and scapegoats Mexicans as the enemy. The presidential administration is “so full of hate and racism,” said Hernandez, “ I’ve met people who are undocumented from Spain, from Romania, and they have never been arrested. I was like, “What’s the difference? The fact that a political group wants a scapegoat— it’s scary.”

Hernandez wants to speak out for her rights but feels she can’t say too much out in the open for fear of being targeted. “You have to be careful how you fight,” she said, “I knew a woman from Argentina…living in Arizona, and she gave an interview on TV saying she’s not afraid now and that it’s wrong. And the police picked her up.”

Despite all this, Hernandez is an activist for her cause, and she takes solace in an amazing group of friends that understand her situation and support her. She recognizes that this kind of support makes her life better. “They want to protect me. They tell me, ‘if anything happens, we’re going to protect you, we’re going to bail you out, we’re going to fight for you.’ I’m happy to have my friends. I’m lucky. Not everyone has that.”

Visit the Undocumented Community Resource Center to find out your rights and utilize aid available to you. Find out more at:

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