When Jason Hernandez ’07 arrived on Mount St. James in fall 2003, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to major in or which career he might be interested in after graduation. But he did know, he says, that he wanted to learn how to live well.
“I decided I would spend time figuring out what I wanted my life to be about, so I majored in philosophy,” he says. “Holy Cross was a great place to experiment with what leadership meant, and thinking about things that you saw and wanted to change.”
These days, living well for Hernandez means serving as an immigration attorney, leading the Rutgers Immigrant Community Assistance Project (RICAP) at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.
Hernandez grew up on Long Island, New York, where his father was an immigrant from Guatemala who ran a food truck business. But he says his path to immigration law isn’t as simple as the son of an immigrant wanting to help others in similar situations. His desire grew out of questions about justice, equality and the legal system, first piqued at Holy Cross as a member of SPUD, the Latin American Student Organization and the Student Government Association and, later, as a volunteer with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in West Los Angeles after graduation. He worked at Chrysalis, an organization that helps people reenter the workforce after homelessness, incarceration or substance abuse problems.
“I found that work fulfilling in many ways, but it was tough, too. I would assist people in finding employment, and then maybe the background check would reveal some additional information and the employer would let them go. Then they would ask me what they could do or if they had any rights,” he says. “It got me thinking about social justice and how the legal system isn’t equal for all.”
Hernandez decided to enroll in law school at Temple University in Philadelphia, where a fellowship at HIAS Pennsylvania turned into a full-time job. He worked at the nonprofit, which helps immigrants and refugees navigate U.S. immigration, for five and a half years.
When Hernandez saw that Rutgers was creating an office to assist immigrants on campus, he jumped at the chance to get involved. He estimates that the school is one of two or three universities on the East Coast that has created dedicated, full-time attorney positions to specifically represent immigrant and undocumented students in immigration matters. New Jersey has offered in-state tuition rates to students who are not U.S. citizens since 2015; in 2018, it expanded to offer financial aid as well, which has increased the population of undocumented students on the university’s three campuses across the state.
Hernandez says Rutgers created his position and the RICAP because of this change, coupled with the anti-immigration policies implemented by the Trump administration. In particular, students expressed distress over the uncertain future of the country’s undocumented youth and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA provided work permits and deportation protection to eligible immigrant youth who came to the U.S. when they were children, which enabled them to obtain jobs and apply to college.
Hernandez travels among the three campuses, providing free legal consultation and representation to what he estimates are several hundred undocumented students enrolled at Rutgers. He also organizes community education programming and trainings, so students know when there are changes to immigration law and how it impacts them, as well as their rights in the event they come into contact with immigration and customs enforcement.
Jason Hernandez ’07 stands in the streets of Philadelphia. Photo by Afrik Armando
While Hernandez is quick to credit the support of supervising faculty at Rutgers Law School, he is in many ways a one-man operation, which comes with challenges. Balancing his time among the three campus locations is his toughest hurdle, but he says he is energized by working with the students.
“Obviously, every case doesn’t go the way you want it to, but if you are able to assist somebody in removing a barrier to citizenship, the sky is the limit,” he says. “You can help get people working documents or on a path to citizenship, and it really changes their life.”
While immigration has been at the forefront of the news cycle and recent elections, Hernandez points out that undocumented immigrants have been living on the margins of American society for decades.
“DACA definitely changed the game for young people who are undocumented in the United States, but their family members were undocumented before and remain undocumented, and that’s a lot of stress on a college student, to have a family of mixed immigration status,” he says. “The complicated part is, undocumented immigrants want some level of anonymity; they are not likely to make themselves known, out of fear. And it’s a different kind of fear, a state-sanctioned fear, because there are laws that permit family detention and separation.”
Hernandez is doing what he can at Rutgers to alleviate some of that fear by helping students resolve their immigration status legally and acknowledging their unique student experience.
“I want them to know, ‘We see you, we see that you are here and we aim to help you succeed,'” Hernandez says. “The United States is a wonderful place — not perfect by any means — but we are clearly privileged to live in the United States. And I really believe it is what it is because of immigration and not in spite of it.”
Where is your happy place?
Wissahickon Valley Park, which is a stone’s throw from my home in Philadelphia. You go into it and it feels like you’re not near civilization. There’s a very subtle din from the road, but you could totally think that you weren’t in Philadelphia. It’s a nice place to go on the weekends or before work in the morning if I have a little extra time.
What is your favorite spot on campus at Holy Cross?
It used to be the field between the Hart Center and Easy Street, but I think it’s an apartment building now!
What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?
A supervising attorney at my old job told me, “Remember that we can’t only take the good cases, because everybody deserves the right to have their case prepared properly and get their best chance at a favorable result.” It helped put things in perspective, because sometimes it is tough to take cases where we don’t have much evidence or it will be hard to prove. Everybody needs counsel, and I learn a lot from each case.
What do people thank you for most often?
Some people are nervous to meet with an attorney, so people generally thank me for being kind and approachable. When my students leave meetings with me, they have said that it is easy to talk to me.
What is your favorite food from your dad’s food truck?
He would bring home strawberry paletas — strawberry popsicles that are made with real strawberries. They’re cheap, but they’re delicious!
Written by Maura Sullivan Hill for the Winter 2019 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.
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