Wednesday, December 1, 2021


The words still resonate with me: “You did it the right way.” 

They came from a close friend as we engaged in a conversation about immigration to the United States. The fact that I married a U.S. citizen overseas and applied for residence at the local U.S. consulate before moving to America meant, in his eyes, that I was a more legitimate immigrant than others. As far as Hispanics come in my friend’s book, I was the poster child for Uncle Sam’s path to the American Dream. If it only were that simple.

As families like mine celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month this year, I noticed how little Americans talk about what that heritage actually looks like. “Hispanic” heritage is as diverse as the pursuit of the American Dream. Any attempt to condense Hispanic heritage into a homogenous list of cultural stereotypes is as futile as defining the “right” immigrant journey. Hispanic culture comprises more than 20 countries with endless subcultures, colloquialisms, interests, and passions. And just like our heritage is misunderstood and lumped together into the more popular aspects of Mexican culture, our journeys to America tend to be oversimplified and equally misunderstood.

My personal journey to America is only one of the many valid and legal ways to immigrate to our great nation. In my role at Bethany Christian Services, I work with many individuals who share my Hispanic heritage and who have also walked different paths to immigration. All of them are as valid as mine.

I am blessed to have a support network and a set of circumstances that allowed me a comparatively easy path to residency, and eventually, citizenship. And even with everything I had working in my favor, my application still entered what’s known as “administrative processing”— a term that evokes fear in even the most confident applicants. It is essentially a catch-all term, a sort of bureaucratic black hole, where an application enters indefinite limbo. In this hopeless purgatory, the U.S. government rarely provides updates as to why you’ve entered the process or when it will be resolved.

Online immigration forums are filled with first-person accounts of individuals “stuck” in administrative processing for years. In my case, I had a job waiting in the U.S. and a pregnant wife about to enter her third trimester. The embassy advised me that if I traveled to the U.S. with a pending application, they could not guarantee my entry (even though I had a valid tourist visa). We made the tough decision to send my wife to the U.S. alone, not knowing if this meant I would miss the birth of our first child. As providence would have it, the paperwork came through, and it all worked out in the end.

Yes, it would’ve been perfectly legal for me to travel to the U.S. and then apply for adjustment of status and forgo this complicated process. But I was in a position where I could make a choice. Many of my fellow Hispanics do not find themselves in that position. They have journeyed to America seeking asylum or refugee status to escape from the certainty of death in their home country. Some of them make the unimaginable choice to send their children across the U.S. — Mexico border unaccompanied, so they can legally enter American soil. Let’s not get into the fact that many of the conditions they are escaping were created by U.S. foreign policies relating to drugs, weapons, and governmental intervention. 

Just as Hispanic heritage is far deeper and more complex than meets the eye, our journeys to America follow suit. I think back to my friend’s comment — is there a right way? I don’t think so. I know there are many legal pathways to enjoy the safety, freedom, and opportunity this great country provides. Many of which – especially asylum or refugee resettlement – are often misunderstood and met with xenophobic condemnation. 

Let’s face it – while there are many legal pathways to immigrate to the U.S., none of them are easy. U.S. immigration is broken and difficult for everyone, especially people fleeing to the U.S. in search of safety. U.S. immigration courts are facing an all-time high backlog of approximately 1.4 million cases. Behind every one of these cases are a person with a name, a face, and a story. Many of them are Hispanic. 

Things aren’t much better for refugees awaiting resettlement. In FY2021, the U.S. will admit fewer than 10,000 refugees, the lowest number in the history of the resettlement program. As a nation with a spirit of hope and liberty, the U.S. can do better. 

But there are steps I believe Congress and the Biden administration can take to create an orderly and efficient immigration system. One step is enacting restitution-based immigration reform —not amnesty—that would ultimately create a pathway to Legal Permanent Residency for those in the U.S. without legal status, but only if certain qualifications are met. If a violation of the law occurs, significant fines and penalties are implemented and paid by immigrants who came to our country illegally as adults. Dreamers, immigrants who were either brought to the U.S. unlawfully or overstayed a visa as children, would also go through a process eventually leading to Legal Permanent Residency. Any changes made to strengthen the rule of law must recognize the dignity and humanity of everyone who calls America “home.” 

I’m also grateful the Biden administration set an ambitious target of resettling 125,000 refugees in FY2022, including 15,000 people from Central America. Restarting and improving the Central American Minors will allow thousands of families to be safely and legally reunited.

Every journey is different, and every unique story is made possible because of a heritage marked by bravery. The fabric that makes up our Hispanic heritage is woven together from the same materials as the American Dream: diversity, courage, selflessness, and loyalty. We may be a blend of people groups, but we are forged with the same divine fire. Hispanic heritage is the heritage of the immigrant, the heritage of the brave, the heritage of America.

• Juan Fernandez is Vice President of Marketing & Communications at Bethany Christian Services

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