By Daniela Barranco
Boyle Heights Beat
The last time Yadira Hernández had seen her eldest brother was in 2006.
Last December, they reunited, thanks to the U.S.-Mexico Foundation’s (USMF) “Dreamers Without Borders” program. Hernández, along with 89 other “dreamers,” returned to Mexico for a month-long stay that included attending seminars and meeting with civic and business leaders. Most importantly, for Hernández and other dreamers, the program provided a chance for her to reconnect with family in her hometown.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Hernández said. “It was like a dream after 11 years.”
“It was reconnecting with our roots,” said Alma, 27, another of the program’s participants. At her request, Boyle Heights Beat is using only her first name. She lives in Alhambra and works as a program coordinator downtown.
“We always wanted to feel what it means to be Mexican,” Alma said, “to actually have real memories of Mexico and what it looks like, how people in Mexico live, and what it takes to survive in Mexico.
“It was a very humbling experience to see the humble beginnings of my family. It brought me joy being able to see them, but it also brought me sadness that we left them. I understood better with my own eyes the reasons why my parents had to leave Mexico.” Dreamers Without Borders launched in 2015 and has served over 100 young people. The personal experiences of U.S.-Mexico Foundation CEO Rebeca Vargas inspired her to form the cultural exchange program. Vargas grew up in Mexico and came to the United States to attend graduate school at Tulane University. When she was young, she had the opportunity to travel to other countries through exchange programs and learned about their cultures and economic, and social realities.
“Those opportunities opened new horizons for me and taught me a lot of things,” Vargas said. “With that experience and background, I thought of doing this. My hope is that (dreamers will) become an important workforce in the U.S.”
Despite having been able to travel to their home country, the futures of Hernández and other dreamers is unclear because of the uncertainty surrounding President Donald Trump’s stance on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order that granted undocumented individuals who arrived in the United States before June 15, 2007 and before turning 16 the right to stay in the country to work and study. They are eligible to apply for a two-year renewable work permit, as well as protection from deportation. Some other conditions apply.
During a White House press conference in February, Trump discussed two Department of Homeland Security memos that stated that his administration’s expanded immigration enforcement would not affect DACA. According to the memos, however, any undocumented individual convicted of a crime can be detained and subjected to deportation proceedings.
“To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids, in many cases, not in all cases,” Trump said during the press conference. “In some of the cases, they’re having DACA, and they’re gang members, and they’re drug dealers, too. But you have some absolutely incredible kids, I would say mostly, they were brought here in such a way — it’s a very, very tough subject. We are going to deal with DACA with heart.”
If DACA gets revoked, Vargas said the cultural exchange program would remain intact. However, instead of reaching out only to dreamers, it would provide the same opportunity to Mexican Americans who have just received permanent residence status or those who were born in the United States and haven’t visited Mexico.
“Regardless of the current rhetoric, we share our border, we share our community, we share our geography, we share economies,” she said. “The more we get to know each other, the better for both countries.”During their stay in Mexico City, program participants attended press conferences, met with government officials and mentored students from Tecnológico de Monterrey who are studying English.
“They wanted to hear what we thought about some of the issues that were important to us about our program and (what) our goals (were) to explore this mentorship program,” Alma said.
Hernández was 15 when she came to the United States from Puebla with her parents and three siblings.
“At the beginning, I didn’t want to come here. I was afraid to leave my friends and start a new life all over again,” the 26-year-old said.
They settled in Lynwood, where her family still lives. She attended East Los Angeles College and UCLA, where she graduated in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. Hernandez plans on applying to law schools in the fall. She volunteers to help inform undocumented students about their rights.
In her hometown, Hernández bonded with her 30-year-old brother, who stayed in Mexico to continue his studies in architecture. They immediately went out to eat tacos and cemitas poblanas – a sandwich covered with sesame seeds that is a regional specialty in Puebla.
“It was exciting to reconnect with him,” she said. “Spending time with him was one of the first things I really wanted to do.”