Today Javier Hernández is a high-achieving college student and legal assistant who will likely pursue a career in law. And yet as a young boy in San Salvador, El Salvador, Hernández’s future wasn’t nearly so bright. In fact, he had one central fear: That when he turned 12 he’d be recruited into a gang. So in 2006, when he was 11, Hernández and his 8-year-old brother set off by themselves for the United States. Over 14 days, the pair journeyed north by bus and by foot, until they reached family in California. “I remember almost everything,” Hernández recalls. “Most of the time we were hiding in the restrooms in the buses, or we had to act like we were sleeping. There were some times when we walked overnight in the woods. And it’s very difficult for a kid not to talk. They would always tell us, ‘Be quiet, they’ll listen to your accent and they’ll know you’re not from here, and you’ll get caught.’ ”
That’s why I’m interested in going to law school. I want to be able to help those kids.
As a child, Hernández didn’t understand what was going on. “There were times we were kept in a house for a week, and they didn’t let us go out,” he recalls. “We were in a small room full of people, at least 20 people, living on the floor, eating once or twice a week if we were lucky. They wouldn’t let us go outside or see the sun. It was just this empty room full of people, and they all had the same purpose of coming to the United States to have a better life.” Now, the 21-year-old works full time as an administrative legal assistant at Public Counsel in Los Angeles, a legal services firm that helps unaccompanied migrant youth, and studies business administration at El Camino College. He’s also considering going to law school, inspired by both the attorneys and the children he currently assists. “I see myself in those kids sometimes,” Hernández says. “I was in their shoes. Now that I’m working here, I’ve found my passion.”
Yet it wasn’t just merit and hard work that allowed Hernández to attend college and embark on a legal career. Immigration policy played a significant role. In 2012, when former President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, which shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation and provides them with authorization to work, both Hernández and his brother were able to receive benefits. For the first time, they had Social Security numbers, which allowed them to apply for state financial aid, get drivers’ licenses, and legally seek employment. “My life changed ever since I got a work permit,” Hernández says. “I was also able to get a job here at Public Counsel. Before that, it was very difficult for me to find opportunities.” DACA has also enabled Hernández’s younger brother to attend California State University Dominguez Hills and become a paramedic.
At Public Counsel, Hernández is the first point of contact for unaccompanied children in immigration court. He handles intake scheduling, executes translations at asylum offices and during interviews, and sits with children for hours to understand their cases. “Sometimes I walk into a client meeting and I’m thinking, OK, this kid went through the same thing I did,” he says.
Becoming a permanent U.S. resident is Hernández’s dream, yet few avenues currently exist for him to achieve it. Residency would allow Hernández to apply for federal financial aid, making the possibility of law school economically feasible. “I do feel safer with my work permit,” Hernández says, “But that doesn’t guarantee that I’ll be here and continue to be allowed to work.” He also worries about whether the DACA program might be suddenly cancelled. With legal residency or citizenship, Hernández would also be able to sponsor his parents, who currently lack authorization to live in the United States. Despite having paid taxes and having worked full-time for more than a decade, both live with a constant fear of deportation. “Sometimes I get very paranoid when I hear on the news all these raids going on in California,” Hernández confesses. “I tell my parents don’t go out. If anybody knocks on the door, don’t open it. It’s very scary, because I see them go to work every day, and one day they might be at the wrong spot at the wrong time.”
Hernández says that improved access to legal counsel should be a goal of U.S. immigration policy. “Paying for an attorney or an immigration attorney is so expensive. Now that the immigration system is so complex and so difficult to understand, everyone needs access to affordable attorneys or the chance to have themselves represented.” For minors, in particular, he says, attorneys are essential. Sometimes their parents are forced to act as attorneys if they can’t afford professional counsel. And although Hernández’s current role at Public Counsel is largely administrative, it still offers him perspective and insight into the legal complexities inherent in U.S. immigration policy. “That’s why I’m interested in going to law school,” Hernández says. “I want to be able to help those kids.”