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Bertha Hernandez free after Arizona protest

By Dave Schneider |
June 1, 2013
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Bertha Hernandez, with daughter on her lap, reunited with her family after being
Bertha Hernandez, with daughter on her lap, reunited with her family after being released from Eloy Detention Center the day after a major protest demanding her freedom. (Fight Back! News/Staff)

PHOENIX, AZ – At midnight on May 31, Emilio Hernandez heard a knock on the front door. With the rest of his family sound asleep, he walked to the door and opened it. He couldn’t believe what he saw. There standing in the doorway was his wife, Bertha Hernandez.

Bertha Hernandez was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and held in Eloy Detention Center since November 2012. A large protest took place in Phoenix on May 29 demanding that ICE release her.

“When my dad answered the door, he started freaking out,” said Jennifer Hernandez, Bertha’s 16-year-old daughter. “I woke up because I thought something bad had happened, but when I ran over to the door, it was my Mom! I ran and hugged her, and I kept saying, ‘Is this real? Is this real?’”

ICE took Hernandez, a mother of five children, into custody in November 2012 at the Arizona-California state border for being undocumented, despite her having no criminal record during her 16-year residency in the U.S.. “The day I saw her get arrested, I didn’t cry,” said Jennifer Hernandez. “I was just in shock.”

Hernandez emigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador in 1997, seeking political asylum. The state of Arizona has no political asylum case manager, leaving Hernandez unable to obtain necessary documentation. All five of her children, including Jennifer, are U.S. citizens.

In an exclusive interview with Fight Back! News, Jennifer Hernandez described her family’s struggle in the nearly seven months in which her mother was detained. “It was hard not seeing her in the morning or at night. It’s been almost seven months, and it just so hard. You want to just say ‘I love you,’ and you can’t.” She talked of times when her five-year-old sister, who understood what happened to Bertha, wanted to be with her mom. “I would just say ‘I know’ and we would cry.”

The Hernandez family tried consulting lawyers about Bertha’s case, but they received very little help. “No lawyers wanted to take her case,” said Jennifer. “They said it was almost impossible to get her out. And that is devastating to hear.”

Organizers from Puente, a grassroots immigrant rights organization, met Jennifer Hernandez at Carl Hayden High School. Bertha Hernandez’s case struck a chord with Chicanos, Central Americans and Mexicans in the Phoenix area. Phoenix is located in Maricopa County, where the infamously racist sheriff Joe Arpaio abuses immigrants.

On May 29, organizers with Puente joined up with the Hernandez family to hold a massive march on the ICE office in Phoenix. More than 120 people marched in the protest, demanding Bertha’s release and an end to the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

The rally drew widespread community support from students, teachers, parents, and activists in the Phoenix area. Phoenix Union High School District Superintendent Kent P. Scribner and Carl Hayden High School approved of the protest organized by their students and the children of Bertha Hernandez.

“So many people wanted to help my mom,” said Jennifer about the rally. “It was crazy because I didn’t think that this many people would care about my mother and her case. People gave her so much importance, even people who didn’t even know her. We did the march, and when I saw how many people united, it was a lot.”

Bertha Hernandez saw the protest on a TV inside Eloy when a local television statement ran a segment on it in the news. In an interview with Fight Back!, Hernandez described her reaction to the protest, saying, “I was crying because I was worried for my children, for Jennifer. But everyone detained in Eloy said to me, ‘don’t cry.’ Everybody believed in me reuniting with my family and winning this victory.”

Immediately after the protest, ICE agents called Bertha Hernandez into their office to review her file. Facing enormous community pressure, they released her from Eloy less than a day after the rally.

“The ICE agents didn’t say much,” said Bertha. “They only said, ‘You’re going home now.’ I was crying and crying, saying ‘I don’t believe it.’” She continued, “But when they said, ‘You are going home now to the bus station in Phoenix,’ I said, ‘Okay, I believe it now.’”

ICE released Bertha Hernandez late at night on May 30, dropping her off at the bus station in downtown Phoenix. ICE did not contact the Hernandez’s family. Hernandez figured out how to return home, knocked on the door and surprised her anxious family, who had marched just two days earlier demanding her release.

Speaking to the release of Hernandez, Beto Soto, organizer with Puente and a leader of the march, said, “The almost-instant response by ICE towards the case of Bertha lays out the power of students organizing for family reunification in America. It shows ICE has no plan to fix the immigration system. What we need is legalization for all.”

When asked how she feels about the victory, Bertha Hernandez said, “I am excited, very happy. I don’t believe it because everything feels very, very different.”

This people’s victory in Phoenix comes at the end of a national week of action by immigrant rights groups around the U.S., which demands “Legalization for all.” The countrywide events targeted ICE offices, detention centers, legislators involved in drafting Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR), and other politicians.

Drawing lessons from this victory, Soto said, “The biggest lessons in American history have been taught by working and oppressed people, and now the students in Maricopa County will be leading a struggle for family reunification and the inalienable, self-evident right to go to school without fear. And in this case, ICE learned a powerful lesson from the students.”

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