Osbaldo Hernandez’s journey to citizenship
Hundreds of Spanish-speaking residents in Snohomish County pass through the doors of our Familias Unidas center in Everett each year. Some seek food, housing, health care and other basic needs. Others are looking for jobs, English language classes, citizenship classes or assistance with immigration documentation.
Osbaldo Hernandez, program manager for LCS Northwest’s Familias Unidas, Everett and South Snohomish County family support centers, feels a kinship to all of them. His story could be their stories.
The Hernandez family lived in a small town in Mexico. Economic opportunities were hard to come by so Osbaldo’s father journeyed north to work in the fields and orchards of eastern Washington.
“My father was absent for much of my childhood,” Osbaldo recalled. “He could only visit us occasionally.”
Osbaldo liked academics and his mother encouraged him to excel. She knew her son wanted to visit the United States to see his father, so she promised to take the family north for a visit if Osbaldo finished at the top of his class in fifth and sixth grades. He did.
“I lived up to my end of the bargain. Now it was my mother’s turn to hold up her end,” he said.
His mother applied for a visitor visa for the family twice, and twice she was denied. It was then that Osbaldo’s parents made the decision that they would cross the border without legal documentation.
Their journey began in July 2002 and the family traveled north to a pre-arranged destination. The smugglers separated the Hernandez boys from their mother for the crossing, which took several days to complete. Osbaldo, who was 11, and his four-year-old brother were temporarily housed with a couple who provided them with haircuts, new clothing and identification. They were instructed to memorize their new names and identities.
“My little brother was afraid and cried for our mom. I tried to cheer him up by promising that we’d have an ice cream cake for his birthday. I couldn’t let him see that I cried for our mother too,” Osbaldo said.
They were driven in a car through the first border check by a young woman who gave them books to read and told them to be quiet. The boys were then transferred to a refrigerated produce truck with other migrants to continue their journey through a second checkpoint. They were hidden behind crates of produce in a cramped compartment.
This leg of their journey lasted for several hours. As they neared the second checkpoint, the driver informed his passengers that he was cranking up the refrigeration so their body heat would not be detected and that everyone must be quiet.
When the truck came to a stop, Osbaldo could hear voices and barking dogs outside. Someone opened the door and peered in at the produce. Everyone was silent.
Soon, the truck was moving again and the driver let the trailer warm up. When the truck came to a stop again, the smugglers let everyone out. They were in California and Osbaldo’s uncle was there to greet them. The boys were quickly reunited with their mother and the three of them stayed with the uncle at his California residence until their father was ready to bring them to Washington.
By now, Osbaldo’s father was living in Bellevue and working in the restaurant industry. The family arrived in time to enroll the boys in school. Osbaldo quickly mastered the English language and took advanced academic classes at Bellevue’s Interlake High School. He was accepted at Seattle University and pursued a degree in Public Affairs.
While at the Jesuit school, he befriended the college president, known to all on campus as Father Steve. With guidance and encouragement from Father Steve and others from Seattle U, Osbaldo helped his father apply for US citizenship in April 2011. Now he and his brother could apply for permanent resident status.
Since they had entered the states undocumented, this required a return trip to Mexico.
“Because I was over 18, I knew that my initial application would be denied and that I would have to file for an exception,” Osbaldo explained. “Folks at Seattle U helped me prepare my support documentation in advance. We knew that it might take months to get my status approved.”
Osbaldo returned to Mexico and submitted his application through the US Consulate and was denied. But within days, thanks to support from the university and Senators Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell and Richard Durbin, his request for exception was granted.
Osbaldo graduated with honors from Seattle U in 2012 and became the first in his family to earn a college degree. He spent two years teaching social studies in south Texas. While living in Texas, he often drove to a local park that overlooked the Rio Grande.
“I would sit in the park and look across the river to Mexico. Sometimes I watched other migrants trying to cross the river to this country,” he mused. “I was fortunate. Many get turned back or lose their lives when they make a bid for this opportunity.”
Osbaldo returned to the Puget Sound in 2015. Using his mother’s beloved tamale recipe, he launched Frelard Tamales with his partner as a mobile business. Now married, the two of them will soon expand the business to a brick and mortar location in Seattle’s Greenlake neighborhood.
In March of this year, Osbaldo achieved another personal milestone when he became a US citizen. That very same day he also registered to vote.
Osbaldo’s journey continues. Now he is passionately working to help his mother become a permanent resident. Her application was denied for reasons different from his and they are preparing an appeal.
“My journey won’t be complete until my mother has her citizenship,” he said.
Familias Unidas provides information, services and community referrals to Spanish speaking residents of Snohomish County. It is one of six Family Support Centers operated in Snohomish County by Lutheran Community Services Northwest.