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Her clients are not rich or powerful. She works in a basement office. Her team represents some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
But Desireé Hernández is not afraid to take on the U.S. government when she believes a child has the legal right to remain in this country.
As Director of Legal Services for the Safe Passage Project, Hernández manages a team providing free legal representation to over 650 immigrant children facing deportation. Her job includes everything from recruiting volunteer attorneys for unaccompanied minors to conducting interviews with kids who may have a case for asylum, special immigrant juvenile status and other forms of relief. Without her and her colleagues at the New York City nonprofit organization, some of these children might go through the immigration court system alone.
Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Puerto Rico, Hernández learned the value of public service early on.
“I used to go with my grandpa, who was a doctor, to his office as a kid; sometimes he would do house calls for free,” she recalled. “He was always helping people. I remember one time this man from the country came in with a crate of live crabs and asked if my grandfather would accept them as payment. And my grandfather actually did treat him, and we drove home with that crateful of crabs.”
Hernández is among a tiny minority within the legal profession. According to Hispanic National Bar Association statistics, Latinas comprise just 1.47 percent of U.S. lawyers.
She sees firsthand the impact that immigration policy has on young lives. Her team's clients have ranged from a year old to age 21.
Hernández admits that her job, at times, can seem daunting. “I try not to think of the children I’ve interviewed as children who have had to flee their country for the lives, or who have made unbelievably dangerous journeys,” she says. “I try to think of them as just kids – sometimes trying to communicate the worst things that have happened to them.”
According to a 2014 study, an unaccompanied child in immigration court with a lawyer has a 73 percent chance of succeeding on their case – versus only a 15 percent chance if they do not have a lawyer.
“I know I’m not dealing with death row cases – but we are dealing with kids who, if they get deported, might end up being killed back home,” Hernández added. “So when I get frustrated, it makes me want to fight harder.”
Despite the long odds that many of her clients face, Hernández describes herself as optimistic. “There are tears and terrible stories out there for many of these kids,” she said. “But there is also joy, there is a chance for them to have a better life, a safe life, the life that they deserve. We are helping give them hope for the future – and it is a privilege to be part of their transformation.”
What's the best part of coming from a Latino family? I love that my mom and dad and our family are still involved with each other’s lives. I don’t live with them anymore (Hernández is married) but we are still very connected. When she hears that it’s cold in New York, my mom calls me and tells me to wear a jacket.
What is your guilty Latino pleasure? I am 34 years old and I still go to Ricky Martin concerts.
What historical figure would you like to have a cafecito with? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., because – given everything that’s going on now – I would like to find a way to deal with hatred that inspires more love.
The #NBCLatino20 honors achievers who are making our communities and our nation better. Follow their fascinating stories throughout Hispanic Heritage Month.