Alex Hernandez will not lose his father next week, immigration officials announced Tuesday.
The 6-year-old faced the threat of foster care if his father and primary caregiver, Valente Hernandez, had been deported back to Mexico. Less than a week before Hernandez was to report to immigration officials, he was granted last-minute permission to stay in the U.S. with his son for another year.
The reprieve means Alex’s world won’t be turned upside down — for now. The kindergartner has been through an ordeal the past few months — he spent the night at an immigration detention facility and several following nights comforting his crying father.
“I’m so glad my dad is not going,” Alex said.
Hernandez applied for a stay of deportation — which would let him remain in the country for a set period of time — but it was denied last month. The father was scheduled to report to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Tampa on Monday.
Alex, who was born in Cape Coral and is a U.S. citizen, has no other family in the country that can take care of him. His mother, also a U.S. citizen, has a drug addiction, no job and several other children who do not live with her, Hernandez said. But the mother has joint custody, even though Alex doesn’t live with her, so Hernandez would have to go back to court before he’d be allowed to bring his son to Mexico. If his deportation order had gone through, Hernandez would likely be long gone before the custody situation was resolved.
The News-Press ran a front-page story Monday about Alex’s uncertain future. The same day, the League of United Latin American Citizens sent a letter to ICE on Hernandez’s behalf. Hernandez’s attorney, Ricardo Skerrett, also wrote the White House.
On Tuesday, ICE sent Skerrett a letter reversing its previous decision and granting Hernandez a stay that lets him remain in the country for one year.
Hernandez spent Monday night in tears, dreading next week’s approaching appointment with ICE. On Tuesday, his life turned around.
“I’m very happy,” Hernandez said. “My life has changed now.”
ICE did not immediately respond when asked why Hernandez is allowed to remain in the country.
“We evaluate every situation on a case-by-case basis,” spokeswoman Carissa Cutrell said Friday.
When issuing a stay of removal, ICE considers factors such as criminal and immigration history, and the potential impact removal may have on family, according to a letter ICE sent Skerrett.
ICE personnel also have discretion when enforcing immigration law, according to a memo sent to staff last year by director John Morton. Personnel can choose to give leniency to illegal immigrants if they feel the situation warrants it.
Hernandez illegally drove across Texas’ border with Mexico in 2005. It was not his first time crossing the border — he was caught by Border Patrol and sent back to Mexico in 2003 and again in 2004.
Hernandez has no criminal record in Lee County other than two arrests for driving without a license, according to the Lee Clerk of Court website.
Skerrett thinks public pressure led ICE to grant Hernandez’s stay of deportation. For that pressure, Hernandez is eternally grateful.
Once Hernandez’s yearlong reprieve expires, the future is uncertain. He can apply to extend the reprieve, and Skerrett said the application is likely to be approved. The first stay is usually the most difficult, he said, adding that a year from now the government may have passed new immigration laws that benefit Hernandez.
Still, the process of reapplying could go on forever, Skerrett said.
“That’s why the law needs to change,” he said. “That’s why we need comprehensive immigration reform. Immigration law is a patchwork of one regulation after another.”
Hernandez has also started the paperwork for his work authorization — he works as a house cleaner and does some restaurant work on the side. He can apply for a driver’s license now as well.
If Hernandez is deported in the future, he will at least have had time to petition Florida court for full custody of his son and permission to take the boy to Mexico. He and Skerrett hope it won’t come to that.
“I’m here (to) make a good life for my family,” Hernandez said. “For my son.”