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Undocumented: Heart Surgeon Tells Richmond Students His Immigration Story

By: Colby Alvino, Staff Writer

“I want to share a story with you,” said cardiac surgeon, author and former undocumented immigrant Dr. Harold Fernandez. “It’s the story of my family.” In his book, “Undocumented: My Journey to Princeton and Harvard and Life as a Heart Surgeon,” Fernandez, 52, recounts his personal struggles growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the United States, what he learned from these struggles and how he overcame them. The book has since been developed into a documentary.

“What would be going through your mind if you were 13 or 14 years old, you are on a small boat, you haven’t seen your parents in a few years and you think you are going to lose your life?” he asked. He also asked how others would feel about not fitting in in high school and getting nervous each time they went home because they didn’t want to open the door and find that their parents were gone. Finally, he wondered what would be going through other people’s minds if they were able to attend the colleges of their dreams, but then received a letter from the dean of foreign students requesting to see their green cards.

“It is an honor for me to be standing here today to tell you what was going on through my mind,” Fernandez said.

Fernandez grew up surrounded by crime in violence living in the neighborhood Barrio Antioquia in Medellín, Colombia. He lived with his “abuelitas,” or grandmothers, while his parents sought work in the United States. After being separated for many years, Fernandez’s mother made the decision to smuggle him and his younger brother into the United States. The two brothers were brought to the small island of Bimini in the Bahamas, and on Oct. 26, 1978, a small boat arrived after two weeks to take the boys and a group of about 10 others to Miami, Florida. Once arriving in Miami, Fernandez and his brother, Byron, flew to Newark, New Jersey to be reunited with their parents. They sprinted off the plane and jumped into their parents’ arms, celebrating with one another. Thankfully for the Fernandez family, no immigration enforcement was present, because the scene was the result of obvious smuggling, he said.

Fernandez attended school in New York immediately upon arriving in the United States. Other students called him a refugee countless times, demanding that he return to wherever he came from. He began initiating fights with the bullies frequently enough for the vice principal to make a phone call to his mother. It was then that Fernandez decided to turn his life around.

With this newfound enthusiasm and grit, Fernandez became a boy scout and the valedictorian of his high school, earning him a spot at Princeton University in New Jersey. Still eager to do the best that he could, he plastered molecular biology notes all over his dorm room walls and came up with advanced studying techniques. The hard work paid off, as he received a letter saying his grades were some of the highest grades at the university. But about a week later, he received another letter from the dean of foreign students.“I thought my dream would be over,” Fernandez said. The dean requested to see his green card, which did not exist. He had submitted a fake green card and fake Social Security card when applying to the university.

He sought counsel from one of his Spanish professors, admitting that he was an undocumented immigrant and had been backed into a corner, not knowing where to turn. His professor volunteered to speak with the president of the university, William G. Bowen. Bowen told the professor to tell Fernandez not to worry, and that the university would help him. Fernandez then wrote letters to Ronald Reagan, who was president at the time, the Republican governor of New Jersey, and former senator of New Jersey and professional basketball player Bill Bradley, who also happened to be a Princeton University graduate. All three men wrote back with letters of support. Fernandez and his family then received green cards.

There were three lessons that Fernandez learned from his two grandmothers that paved the pathway for his success in the United States. The first was about the power of education. Education gave Fernandez the opportunity to leave the world of violence and crime and enter a world of laboratories and libraries, allowing him to incorporate new knowledge and other things into his life.

The second lesson was to understand the power of a smile.

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