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ON THE SCENE: Keene’s Irma Hernandez got her green card

April 26, 2019
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Five years ago, after a half dozen years of living as an undocumented refugee from Mexico, now the mother of two children and living in Keene Valley, Irma Hernandez decided to step out of the shadows and seek a path to citizenship.

On April 9, at the U.S. Consulate in Juarez, Irma's application was approved, an act that resulted in cheers erupting throughout Keene and a great relief to her family who had been living in agony wondering if, like so many others, their family would be separated.

The potential of separation was real as has played out in the media. As our nation's border policies have tightened, Homeland Security's become more aggressive in rooting out people in similar circumstances as Irma. Her success was the result of a persistent five-year effort by her family, friends and neighbors in Keene Valley. For Irma and her husband Isaac, a chef at the Big Slide Brewery in Lake Placid, and their two children Ana and Isaac, the potential of the family being separated hung over them like a sword ready to fall at any moment.

Article Photos

From left are Monique Weston, Irma Hernandez, her son Isaac and daughter Ana, husband Isaac and his parents, Agripina Gomez and Eduardo Hernandez.
(Photo provided — Naj Wikoff)

Irma's husband Isaac hails from Las Salinas de San Pablo Guila, a small mountain hamlet near Oaxaca, Mexico. He snuck into the United States when he was 14 in search of a better life. He was willing to take on any job that would pay him more than the few pesos he could make at home. Many times, he was caught, sent back to Mexico only to sneak back in. Isaac was determined to stay, find a job, get a green card, and become an American citizen, a dream that he eventually realized with the help of his first wife.

"I came here walking in the moonlight," said Isaac. "I came looking for work because we are very poor in Mexico."

More than a job, Isaac wanted a family, a normal life. When his first marriage didn't work out, he sought introductions back home hoping to find a person who shared his roots and values. Through friends and her cousin, Isaac met Irma first by phone, then in person. Bringing her to America in his time-practiced way, he smuggled her across the border taking her to New York where he was working at times two or more jobs.

An offer to work at ADK Cafe brought Isaac and Irma to Keene. The job offered low pay but initially included housing and the use of a car. Plus, the school had a good reputation, and the community was reputed to be very safe. They made the move. Hearing rumors that immigrants are not treated well, coupled with Irma's lack of a visa, they laid low. After a while, the work situation for Isaac became intolerable, and he was let go, losing a job, home and car.

Isaac soon discovered that he and his family had a guardian angel in the form of Monique Weston, an English as a second language tutor volunteer who had been helping Irma improve her English. Weston knew that the people of Keene had a big heart. She introduced Isaac to contractor Bob Biesmeyer, who gave Isaac a job, arranged the first of five separate places for them to live, and connected them with an array of her friends who helped with their move and other challenges.

"When I lost my job at ADK Cafe, and we had to leave our house, Monique was right there with all her friends," said Isaac. "In 10 minutes, she had 10-20 people helping us."

Together, Isaac, Irma and Weston agreed that they had to get Irma a green card, a process not without risk as it required that Irma get registered with Homeland Security. Isaac hired an immigration lawyer he knew in New York. Kathy Smith, who met Irma at a Spanish breakfast group and was assisting her get adjusted to American life, stepped in to work with the lawyer. Isaac, Smith, Weston and the lawyer all agreed on one thing: every detail had to be addressed, every I dotted, every T crossed, beginning with Irma and Isaac getting married, which they did at the Keene Valley Congregational Church, officiated by then pastor Rev. Milton Dudley.

Along the way, Isaac secured a job as a chef at the Big Slide Brewery, and Rev. Dudley offered the use of the church's state-approved kitchen so Irma could make and sell tamales and other Mexican dishes at farmers markets, enabling her to contribute to the family income. Two years ago, Jim Marlatt, a member of the church's Mission & Social Action Committee, pitched Weston on the idea of Adirondack Habitat for Humanity, which he chaired, helping Irma and Isaac build a home. It was a dream they hardly believed possible, but it is now where the family resides.

The ongoing legal process, especially in light of the hardening federal position, laws and regulations, was fraught with challenges and a seemingly never-ending bewildering number of tasks to address.

"Every time you complete one step, there is something new," said Smith. "Irma has to do this, or Irma has to do that. God, there were so many steps. Then there were surprises. Her Mexican passport lapsed, and she had to get it renewed. She had to apologize for leaving her country and entering the U.S. illegally. You have to produce birth certificates, marriage documents, school records, copies of their passports, reports from school psychologists and social workers, and so much more. Every detail took multiple steps."

Finally, all the steps were accomplished and armed with dozens of letters of support organized by Ruth Kuhfahl, they made an appointment at the U.S. Consulate in Juarez. Weston bought airline tickets and arranged a place for them to stay. Then they learned they needed two more items: proof that Irma had not committed a crime in either the U.S. or Mexico in the past four months and three years of Isaac's tax returns.

"Our police don't make reports on people who don't commit crimes, just on those who do," said Weston. "We had to get our state police to state that. Since she was living in the United States, Irma couldn't have committed any crimes in Mexico either, so we had to prove that she was in the United States and not Mexico as well."

With the latest documents arriving the day before they left, a much-relieved Weston and Irma flew to El Paso.

"I felt scared when Irma and Monique left for Juarez because sometimes when they are in the interview with immigration, and they don't have all the needed papers, or there is some error, then immigration says you do not pass and cannot return to the United States," said Isaac. "They may say you have to wait weeks, months or longer. That's scary because we have kids, and they need their mother."

"Both my sister and I were sad when my mom had to leave for Mexico," said their son, Isaac. "Knowing that one of our family is gone is very hard. We were afraid."

Crossing into Mexico was simple as there were no lines. The considerable backup was in Mexico where many were seeking to get into the U.S. Weston managed to get them housing in a compound near the consulate and once there it was a lot of waiting. Finally, Irma had her interview, which she was required to do alone. To her surprise, the person at the consulate was very kind and helpful. She asked a few difficult questions to see if Irma would answer them honestly, which she did. Then she informed Irma that all her papers were in order and congratulated her on being approved.

"I didn't know whether to cry, scream or what," said Irma. "I was so happy."

"I was back at the hotel having breakfast, and she came in with this big, big smile on her face," said Weston. "That was just wow."

Then it was a matter of calling home, waiting a couple of days for Irma's papers and arranging a flight back. The more difficult challenge became getting back into the U.S. As they had a 6:30 a.m. flight, they arranged for a 1:30 a.m. taxi only to discover that traffic was backed up as far as they could see and barely moving at the first bridge. So their taxi driver tried another bridge that was a bit better but urged them to walk across, which they ended up doing. Once at the border, Irma still had to sign for her passport and learned that the immigration office didn't open until 8 a.m. Fortunately, Weston was able to convince border security to expedite the process, and they were able to make their flight.

"We are very grateful to Monique especially, and to Kathy, Margo and Casey at the Sugar House Creamery in Upper Jay who helped Irma set up her business, the church and Habitat, and to all the people Monique knows," said Isaac. "We are very grateful to the American people. If they see you are sick, they stop and help you. They do something. They don't just look and walk by."

"Please thank everybody for me," said Irma. "Keene is a wonderful community. I am so happy to be home, to be with my family. Now I no longer have to hide. I am free."

The Keene Valley Congregational Church is planning a welcome-home community celebration on Wednesday, May 15, which will begin with a ceremony at the church followed by food and refreshments in the Keene Valley firehouse. Details will be posted on their website and local online bulletins.



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