'The American dream is alive,' one immigrant tells her story of risking it all decades ago

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ByMiya Shay via KTRK logo
Wednesday, June 29, 2022
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Theresa Hernandez still remembers the journey like it just happened. It was 1980, and a scared 16-year-old girl decided to follow her then 17-year-old-boyfriend on a perilous journ

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Theresa Hernandez still remembers the journey like it just happened. In 1980, a scared 16-year-old girl decided to follow her then 17-year-old-boyfriend on a perilous journey away from El Salvador's brutal civil war.

"They tried to kill him over there," Hernandez recalled of their decision that spring. "So, he left."

Hernandez flew to Mexico. Then, she remembers walking, using cars, and taking buses all the way to the U.S. border.

"I then did a quick swim," she remembers, and crossed the Rio Grande.

The Texas border was vastly different 42 years ago than it is now.

"It wasn't camera, camera, camera," Hernandez said. In fact, the couple even caught a break going through checkpoints.

"It was Mother's Day. I clearly remember, it was closed. It was easier for us to travel here," Hernandez said.

Four decades of failed immigration reform and hardening political lines in the U.S. mean crossing into the country is more difficult and dangerous than ever.

"Now, people walk for days in the desert. But a lot of people are dying. They don't have water. They get lost, just abandoned," Hernandez said.

This week's horrific scene that unfolded in the outskirts of San Antonio brought into stark focus the dangers that migrants face, especially during the summer months.

Fifty people died inside the oven-like conditions of an 18-wheeler.

"It's heartbreaking," said Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia, who represents portions of Houston and Harris County. "It's a brutal reminder that what they're leaving is probably worse. Whether it's war, poverty, violence, or victimization, or human trafficking. That's what people are leaving, and that's what we need to focus on."

Garcia is frustrated by immigration enforcement policies at both the state and federal levels which she says have put more lives at risk.

"I don't think this should be about laying blame on anyone. It should be about supporting those families, making sure they're treated with dignity and respect," Garcia said.

Garcia said she wants to see state and federal officials follow existing U.S. law, and let asylum seekers apply for asylum. She also wants to see the smugglers held responsible for the crimes.

As for Hernandez, she knows she is one of the lucky ones. She and her boyfriend found jobs, got married, and settled in Houston after arriving in the U.S. They also became naturalized citizens. The couple now has four grandchildren and is active in their church, Holy Ghost.

She knows over the past 42 years; many others were not as blessed.

"A lot of people I know died, coming over here. I feel lucky, I see my grandkids, and a lot of things," Hernandez said.

But despite the ever-growing odds, the American dream remains a goal for so many around the world. The quest to fulfill that dream continues.

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