As a social worker, Bere Hernandez helps people in her community reach their full potential. As an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, she knows how many obstacles the foreign-born can encounter. “Immigrants are often seen as individuals who need to be rescued,” says Hernandez, who received her master’s degree in social work from the University of Houston in 2016. “When we view someone as being broken and needing aid, it doesn’t allow them to see the strength they carry.”
But individuals can’t be truly empowered when they face bureaucratic roadblocks. Hernandez learned that firsthand when she became a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) during college. The 2012 policy temporarily defers deportation and provides work authorization to qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. In the fall of 2017, however, the Trump administration announced plans to rescind DACA, and Congress has so far failed to pass legislation that would protect the more than 800,000 young people like Chavia, who now are at risk of losing their worth authorization and of being deported.
Eliminating DACA would also be a blow to the U.S. economy. Ninety percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older are employed, and combined these Dreamers pay $3 billion in taxes every year and almost $2.5 billion into the Social Security and Medicare funds, critical social programs that benefit all Americans.
For Hernandez, who often felt powerless growing up, helping other people find their own strength is a personal mission. In 1995, when she was 4 years old, her family came to the United States from Mexico seeking better employment, as well as a skilled surgeon to operate on her father’s back. Hernandez and her brother came on a plane with a distant relative. Their parents made the trip six weeks later. The separation was necessary but painful.
Later, when Hernandez was in high school, she watched as her academically talented brother — he graduated seventh in his class — gave up on his dream to become a doctor because he was undocumented. Seeing how depressed he was made Hernandez vow to do everything she could to realize her own potential. “I decided I would not be ashamed of the situation I was in,” she says.
She reached out to teachers and guidance counselors and found a mentor, an affluent 80-year-old Texas native. “When I told her I was undocumented, she didn’t even know what that meant,” says Hernandez. “But she went all out and did a lot of research, helped me with essays, and pushed me forward to apply for anything that was available.”
These are people with strengths, gifts and abilities that we can all benefit from.
With her mentor’s help, Hernandez secured a full scholarship to Texas A&M University. But she still had no idea how she could make use of that education in a professional setting if she was not permitted to work. DACA brought hope. “I saw that there were so many more possibilities,” she says.
Hernandez now aims to bring that sense of possibility to other immigrants. At one Houston neighborhood center where she works, community members serve as translators, ambassadors, and cultural interpreters. They provide educational and public health assistance, encouraging, for example, neighbors to get vaccinated. “These are people with strengths, gifts and abilities that we can all benefit from,” she says.
However, if Congress does not take action to protect Dreamers like Hernandez, that talent could go to waste. “For a lot of people in the community, this has been traumatizing. People have feelings and lives. The words are easy to say, ‘Let’s take it away,’ but you don’t really know the effect it has on the people around it. It’s very upsetting to see people in the community scared that the life they had in their sights, the idea that they could be a doctor or lawyer, has been diminished.”
Hernandez prays that she and other Dreamers will be able to continue do their good work. “God has given me an opportunity to experience all the things I went through so that I can advocate for other people,” she says. “I want to help make sure they don’t have to go through that struggle.”