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Biden's executive order on undocumented spouses hits home for this AZ lawmaker

Woman in glasses speaks at podium
Gage Skidmore
Arizona Rep. Lydia Hernandez at the state Capitol on Feb. 18, 2023.

President Joe Biden issued a new executive order last week that could help more than half-a-million undocumented immigrants stay in the country legally. The so-called ‘parole-in-place’ order protects undocumented spouses and children of U.S. citizens — granting them permanent residency without having to leave the country first to serve parole.

But, while many immigrants welcomed the news, it came with mixed feelings for some. Arizona state Rep. Lydia Hernandez says her husband of 28 years does not have permanent residency status and is still working his way through the legal immigration process. She told me, while she was excited about the news, her husband was hesitant.

Hernandez, a Democrat, is the co-chair of the Arizona Legislature’s Latino Caucus and held a press conference when Biden’s announcement came down last week. The Show sat down with her in her office to talk more about it — beginning with how she and her husband met.

Full conversation

LYDIA HERNANDEZ: I must have been 26 I think when I met him, it was right after I graduated from Baylor. I met him through friends because being from Texas, nobody here.

It's different. it's a different culture, even within our Latino families. And I loved everything about me is Texan. So San Antonio, Tejano music and that's my life and it reminds me of home and I was missing home and they said, you know what? We've got a friend and I swear he dances just like you do.

And sure enough, we went out and we weren't planning on it, but he happened to be there and they introduced me and I said, no big deal. We ended up dancing all night. We, we're from the same regions from the same regions.

LAUREN GILGER: So where is he from?

HERNANDEZ: He is from Saltillo, Coahuila. So the state of Coahuila borders the state of Texas. But that same flair for music and culture is the same. So it might as well just has been Texas. But we, we laughed about it because we met here. But we were all from, you know, far away from our hometown. So I feel like it was somebody that I grew up with and we dated for about a year. And he said, you know, let's get married. So I said, OK, but he says, but we gotta talk, we gotta talk. I gotta tell you it's not gonna be easy. He says, you know, I don't have, I'm not like you, I don't have papers. And I said, what, what do you mean you don't have papers? Even me at that age growing up having grown up in south Texas, a border town, understanding the issues. My mother was a legal permanent resident. We didn't talk about it much. It really didn't dawn on me. I said it's not going to be a problem. You know, I had the world, you know, our lives ahead of us. There's nothing I can’t do.

GILGER: So this was like, it didn't occur to you at the time that he's undocumented and that, that'll matter in our marriage. What was the immigration landscape like at the time? Was it contentious? Was there a lot of racism? This is pre, you know, Arpaio.

HERNANDEZ: Right. Right. It was very much pre-Arpaio. It was kind of calm. I didn't think it would be an obstacle and challenge. I thought it's gonna be as simple as filling out the application if I can, you know, I can do any of that. If it involves me getting guidance, don't worry about it. I'll take care of it. So we did, we talked, we got married, we got married June, I may be wrong here, 16 or 17, 17, but it was the same month and year that the Arizona state Legislature removed the driving privilege for undocumented.

And it was all over the news and we just got married and we just signed and my husband going see, see what I mean. I said not to worry. Well, we're going through the process. So at that point, we were inquiring, we went to several attorneys.

GILGER: So you were hoping you could get him status. Yes, we ended up applying in 2001 when we remember. So when he didn't have to step out of the country, but there was a backlog.

HERNANDEZ: So you're talking about more than 20 years. And so my husband's kind of lost hope. He wasn't as excited when I got the news because since then, we've also, he's been a victim of a crime. Our family's been a victim of a crime. So we also applied for a U-visa thinking, hey, that might put us a get you ahead and even that for the U-visa, a legal permanent residency. It began with three years. Then 4,5, now they're backlogged.

GILGER: So you've tried multiple avenues. This has been going on for decades now. Talk a little bit about how it's affected your life, his life, you have three kids in this country, like for him to have spent decades trying to become a citizen or even a permanent resident here and not be able to do it, I mean, like how has that changed things for you?

HERNANDEZ: Let me go back when I first got here and when we got married, I, I share, I share my knowledge and I like to help families. So in difficult and challenging situations where they've been told, no, you know, I know there's, there's always a solution. Let's just see what can be done. Same thing with mine. I began with that energy heck, I even got a, an executive staff position with Governor Hall. There were several more aspects of government that I wanted to learn and all because at the back of my mind was my husband's situation.

So as I learn more, I realize that you've got to be in a position of influence within government, as a, as an elected official and you're in a different, you, you're on that stage. So that's what got me here eventually. Early on when I, even when I was organizing, it's all about sharing your story. I had this lump, I couldn't share it even now. But give me a moment.

GILGER: Understandable, understandable, take a moment. I mean, it's emotional, right? Like this is so it sounds like this has really not only affected your life, your family, your marriage, but has driven a lot of what you've tried to do and have worked on for so long professionally.

HERNANDEZ: Yes, it has. My whole life got enveloped in in community, in organizing, running for office. I run for school board always thought that I had to be fighting for those rights. And that's what drives me, angers me and keeps me here. I think the situations that my husband's been involved with, he suffered so much from anxiety, PTSD. You think, well, you know, it's just a way of life. No, it's, it's very traumatizing.

He couldn't live a normal life. He's always terrified that just the going to the supermarket or taking my kids to school. So when I HCR 2066 was going through the House, you know, I've been through this before. SB 1070. Name It, there's many more.

I'm always talking about the unintended consequences and that's what I mean. So they're law abiding, hard working, you know, he works construction, he works hard and made many sacrifices to allow me to achieve my goals. So it's been a long journey. I've got so much.

GILGER: It's OK. So let me ask you, tell me a little bit more about your reaction and, and your husband's reaction when this announcement came down.

HERNANDEZ: I was at the supermarket. It was late probably around 9 p.m. and I had chief of staff called me and said, hey, the executive order announcements taking place tomorrow. I was so excited because not just myself and here I am in the middle of my supermarket back in my legislative district. I hung up and I before texting at the same time calling my husband, I said, “hey, the executive orders being announced and all this exactly you know what we needed. It'll get one more, one more possibility.” And he, and he says, groggy, he says, “You know, tell me about it when you get home.” And OK, yeah, OK. He wasn't as excited. When I got back, I said, “Let me explain this to you. Maybe you didn't understand me.” He said, “yeah, well, OK, it's another opportunity” but he doesn't believe in it anymore.

GILGER: So it's just been too many years, too many caveats here, too many applications that didn't go through that kind of thing.

HERNANDEZ: Right. He says, just tell me what we got to do. Just, you know, let, let's go through it again, you know, we know what we got to do. But that was it. He says, “let's see if this works.”

GILGER: So what would it mean to him, to you, to your kids if this happened? Like if he did, you know, get this application approved, become a citizen?

HERNANDEZ: Well, I think so many changes, you know, our way of life, those unintended consequences. This is what I'm most fearful about and that's most implicating when like HCR 2060 this year or SB 1070. He's not deportable, so I'm not worried about that.

What I am worried about is what's very fearful for me is the implications by law enforcement or even other folks in and around that arena that thinks that, oh, well, you're an illegal or you're illegally in the country or just based on the color of your skin because I want to tell you, I've lived this my entire life, being married to my, even prior to that. But those are the unintended consequences of our hard working, you know,, families. That's not fair. That's not fair.

GILGER: So, the last thing I want to ask you is about, I guess the other side of this, right? Like an executive order from the president a few months before an election, it obviously could go out the window if the election goes the other way. Are you concerned that going about it as an executive action, as opposed to something through Congress, right, it just makes it that much more tenuous for people in an already tenuous situation.

HERNANDEZ: Yes. And that's probably why my husband says explain it to me. Does this mean it's a done deal? I mean, it's going to happen or is this going to go away? Is it like DACA? That's what he thought of when I mentioned executive order.

GILGER: Is it like DACA?

HERNANDEZ: And I said it is, could be like DACA, I said, but you know, I am, I believe this is going to stick.

GILGER: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you for having me on and thank you for the opportunity, sharing our story.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.
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