‘If you look up at the sky, there are no boundaries. Borders and fences are man-made’

I met a mother who crossed the Mexican border at El Paso to save her daughter

The immigration officer asked Carmen Hernandez, “Why did you come into the United States?”

She responded, “If there was a cure for your daughter’s disease across a border or wall, you wouldn’t let that stop you from getting where you need to be.”

As I heard Carmen, who was born and raised in Juarez, Mexico, say these words, I was feeling fortunate enough to hear her story with the Service Immersion group that I was with from Temple University. As part of our trip to learn more about the immigration down the South, I knew that her story was important since I was a second generation immigrant myself – my unstoppable parents have their own immigration stories.

Carmen Hernandez explained that her story first began when she was granted a crossing visa from Juarez to El Paso.  She had no choice but to bring her daughter, Maria, into the United States.  Maria needed a kidney transplant or she would die, according to Carmen, who was actually her adopted mother. Carmen decided to adopt her after her biological mother passed away and her father abandoned her because of her disability.

This street connects to the Stanton Street Bridge, where many people walk from Juarez, Mexico into El Paso, Texas.

Around this time, Juarez was considered highly dangerous because of the murders that occurred daily in Mexico.

“I didn’t care if I died walking from Juarez to El Paso,” Carmen said.

“I wasn’t scared of dying – I had nothing else to lose.”

Carmen and Maria were able to cross into the U.S. with Carmen’s crossing visa. Thankfully, Maria was immediately taken to the hospital, where she received the right medical help that she needed in El Paso, Texas.

“It was a miracle that as an undocumented, we were able to find a transplant since we are usually the last ones on the list,” Hernandez said. “There were angels around me – the doctors at the hospital pushed for Maria’s transplant.”

The struggle of paying Maria’s medical expenses had a toll on Carmen. She said she didn’t know how she would pay for it – it’s almost impossible for undocumented immigrants to find jobs. In her case, she had her daughter in the hospital to worry about.

“I would eat the leftovers from the patients in the hospital,” Carmen said.

“The hospital gave us three free months, but once we were released, I needed to find Maria and I place to stay. That’s not easy when you don’t have money or family members to help you.”

Carmen’s voice trembled as she told continued;  it was clear how much she suffered throughout this ordeal with no one by her side.

She explained that she was lucky to stay in a hallway of a friend’s house, where they set up Maria’s bed with the medical equipment that she needed.

When Carmen was in Mexico, the doctors told her that Maria would never be able to walk again. In the United States, she was able to walk with canes at the age of 15.

Carmen’s face broke into a smile when she retold the story of Maria’s quinceañera, a tradition in many Latino countries.  It celebrates the age of 15 for the daughter who is entering their adolescent years.

“No one expected her to walk during the quinceañera and once she made her grand entrance, everyone cheered her on – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Carmen said.

“The party was everything that she could have wanted, and the whole community showed up to support Maria.”

But the good times were nearing their end. After Maria turned 21, she was responsible to pay further medical expenses.

“Maria’s medication would cost $220 a month and it was too much for me to pay on my own,” Carmen said.

“Some years were fine and I was able to find work, but after my other children were deported, my own salary and having to pay rent also – it was too much for me.”

Three years later in Juarez, Maria became ill. The doctors in Mexico did not know about her previous 28 surgeries when her appendix ruptured.

“I prayed to not see my daughter with a machine, seeing her suffer was too much for me,” Carmen said.

“It was around 8 a.m that Maria asked to use her headphones. She loved listening to music, especially if she was in pain.  At around 10 a.m., she took off her headphones and that’s when she suffered a heart attack.”

Maria passed away at the age of 25.

“One minute you are a mother and in a blink of a eye, you’re not,” Carmen said.

Carmen and I after she spoke to our service immersion trip.

After Maria died, Carmen told our us she used work as a distraction from the pain of her daughter dying.

Groups from trips that I was in were the angels that Carmen would explain to us that were placed in her life for the better, when she was able to apply for a green card with the help of a student volunteer. After her interview with the immigration officer and the quote of why she crossed the border, she was able to receive a green card.

“I know you students have to pay a lot for college and you all have your own lives to worry about,” Carmen said, “but we live in a close circle and do not choose to see what’s outside of the circle or do not wish to even see beyond that.  We are all here for a purpose and I hope you all do not forget about my story.”

In our service immersion trip, we were reminded to never forget about the stories that we heard about. Carmen is one of the people who advocated our group and others come on this trip – to speak up and talk about the people who cross the border for big reasons.

“If you look up at the sky, there are no boundaries. Borders and fences are man-made. So if you ever encounter an immigrant, extend your hand to them, because you never know their full story.”

Night time photo of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico from the other side of the border.

Although, Carmen’s story did not have a happy ever after, her story made a huge impact.

She reminded us this could have been a relative of yours – or even yourself if you were born elsewhere and needed to come to an advanced country for medical services.

Despite everything that she has gone through, she wears a smile on her face and her faith close to her heart. It was inspiring to see someone maintain her strength.

As Carmen said: “If you have a good foundation, you will never break.”