Dr. Harold Fernandez is literally oceans removed from the life he fled in a violent neighborhood in Colombia when he was just 13 years old, with his younger brother in tow. He remembers the frightful and perilous journey to the shores of Miami decades ago as if it were yesterday, and said he knows well the feeling of the children separated from their parents as illegal immigration divides the country.
On a recent July day, his world was much brighter. Warm afternoon sun streamed in from the windows of his office at Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, where he is chief of cardiothoracic surgery. The rays bounce off framed diplomas from Princeton University and Harvard University that line the wall.
Fernandez, 52, sits unassumingly at his desk, his skilled hands clasped in front of him. His ease and calm demeanor reflect the bedside manner that has been praised over the years by his patients, making it difficult to believe he has ever been anything other than a doctor.
But decades before Fernandez even considered going to medical school, he was a terrified teenager who was risking his life to enter the United States illegally and reunite with his parents after years of separation.
The story of his life as an immigrant in the country illegally is chronicled in a documentary that on July 15 was screened for a second time at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre. The film is based on Fernandez’s 2012 memoir “Undocumented,” which he said he wrote to introduce an immigrant family to the American public and try to reduce the stigma around those entering or living in the country illegally.
Fernandez and his younger brother, Byron, grew up in the city of Medellin with their maternal and paternal grandmothers in Barrio Antioquia while their parents looked for better job opportunities in New York after illegally immigrating from Colombia. Fernandez recalls how his parents desperately missed him and his brother, especially after having another child, Marlon, while they were living in America. His youngest brother, Alex, was also born in the United States. Eventually his mother decided she could not build a life without her older sons.
In the book, Fernandez describes the drawn-out, nerve-wracking journey that was initially supposed to take three days, but ended up lasting two weeks. When the boys boarded a plane in Colombia that would take them to Panama and then on to the Bahamas, the midpoint of their journey, Fernandez recalls being elated at the thought of seeing his parents soon. He and his brother had not seen their father in four years, and their mother in two.
Upon touching down in the Bahamas, they boarded a water taxi to the island of North Bimini, where they were to mingle with tourists to avoid detection before boarding a small boat that would smuggle them to Florida. Their boat was supposed to leave immediately, but the hurricane season weather conditions prevented them from embarking on the last leg of their journey for another 12 days.
On Oct. 26, 1978, they piled into the boat, which Fernandez said clearly was not built for the long-distance trip, at midnight, to avoid officials patrolling the area, and prayed they would make it to the other side. Seven hours later, and seemingly against all odds, Fernandez said, they arrived in Florida and then flew to New York to meet their parents.
After completing high school in New Jersey, Fernandez attended Princeton University, applying with a fake green card and Social Security card. When his undocumented status was discovered halfway through his freshman year, school officials let him stay, giving him a scholarship and connecting him with lawyers who helped him and his family obtain their legal residency in 1986, and eventual citizenship.
Fernandez lives in Lloyd Harbor with his wife, Sandra, and two children, Jasmine and Brandon, and practices medicine within the Northwell Health system. He sat down with Newsday to recount his journey and his time as an undocumented immigrant, and to add his voice to the nation’s conversation on immigration:
What was it like growing up in Colombia?
It was just difficult because we were separated from both of our parents, and it was a very critical age in our lives, just young teenagers being surrounded by a lot of violence. We saw some of my friends growing up get killed in the same streets we used to play soccer.
Can you tell me about your trip from the Bahamas to Florida?
It was probably the longest seven hours of my life. I still remember the boat going up and down, coming down, crashing against the waves. It was me, my brother — I was 13, he was 11 — and 10 other undocumented immigrants. Everyone was crying, praying. I didn’t know how to swim, not that it would’ve made any difference.
During those moments where I thought I wasn’t going to make it, what kept coming into my head was not really all of the things that I had been promised that I would find in the United States — you know, education, the opportunities, the wonderful city of New York — but just praying that I could see my parents again.
And that’s why when I hear those stories of kids being separated from their parents at the border, I get emotional just because I know what’s going through the minds of those kids. I know the agony that’s going through their hearts and their minds.
What’s going through their minds?
Terror. They have thought that they’re not going to see their parents again, that the parents are just going to disappear. These are thoughts that are going to stay with them and haunt them for the rest of their lives.
Do you think the attitude toward immigrants has changed from when you were growing up?
I think it’s very similar. The difference right now is that there’s a heightened sense of anger toward immigrants, which comes from the top – and it really comes from the president. This issue has existed forever, but now there’s this heightened sense of labeling immigrants as criminals, as people that shouldn’t be here.
When many immigrants get here, they can get sucked into a world of bad habits, which you initially dabbled in. What stopped you from that?
I had the fortune of just having parents that worked really hard and having already had the solid foundation of moral and spiritual values, but it took a couple of events that were just very memorable. One was the time when the vice principal called my mother for a special meeting because we [he and Byron] had gotten into some fight in school, and he warned her that we were going to be suspended. When I saw my mother break down and cry, I started to realize that this woman risked so much for us, including our own lives and including her own life, so that we could have a better life, and I wasn’t being grateful. I decided right there that I was going to do things differently.
Can you tell me about your journey to Princeton?
My sophomore year in high school, I made it to the state sectionals in the half mile, which happened to be at Princeton. I remember after the meet I went for a little jog around the campus and I began to look at the students there and to realize that they weren’t very different than me, and I began to believe that I could also be a student there if I wanted to.
Have people reacted negatively to your story?
One opinion that is very common is that I stole a citizen’s seat at Princeton -- that my scholarship could’ve gone to a regular American citizen, and that I stole that scholarship as an undocumented immigrant. That doesn’t hurt me — that some people think that way — because they definitely have a point. My feeling in general is that my contributions to America are related to my dedication to my job and my work: taking care of people.
How do you think the zero-tolerance policy and the separation policy have influenced the immigration debate?
I think that this, particularly what is happening now with the kids, has made it more as a humanitarian crisis. The separation is just something that a lot of people feel that is crossing a line, where a lot of Americans feel uncomfortable doing it. It’s just immoral.
What do you think about the solutions proposed on the other side of the immigration debate, such as abolishing ICE and opening borders?
I think that those are not good solutions. We have to deal with the problem, but it has to be done in a just and humane way. I think strong borders and secure borders are important, but at the same time, we have to find a just solution to the 16 million people that are here without documents, and that should include legalization, and it should include a pathway to citizenship, which is what I think is holding a lot of people back. My thoughts are a little bit biased because of what I went through, and because of what my family went through, and also because of what I feel my community has gone through. I look at it more from the compassionate side.
Would you say your story is the typical immigrant story?
It’s very common. Every time I talk about this, I tell people that you don’t necessarily have to become a cardio surgeon or a neurosurgeon, but I think immigrants contribute in many different ways. You know, my father worked in embroidery and he used to make the embroideries that are placed on the uniforms of the soldiers, so I feel that all immigrants contribute. I know deep in my heart that the great majority of immigrants here want to be good people and that they’re here to make the country better.
Can you describe your reunion with your parents?
We hadn’t seen our parents in such a long time, that as I was walking down the corridor to meet our parents, and then I finally see my mother’s face, and she’s crying, and my father is crying, and he’s trying to wipe the tears away from her, we just started running toward them and celebrating and hugging each other. We forgot about immigration, and everything else. It was very emotional and I’m sure that if immigration had been there, they probably would have realized that, you know, this is very abnormal how this family is celebrating.
Now that I have kids, I think I identify with some of those feelings, just because I think about the possibility of your kids being away for years, or indefinitely, when you don’t know when you’re going to see them again. And I think that’s the most difficult part.
How did you react when Princeton discovered you were an illegal immigrant?
I thought my time at Princeton was over and done. I had met several professors, including one of my professors that I took for my Spanish literature course, professor Arcadio Dias Quinonez, and I met with him. But before I could say anything, I started to cry. I cried for like, five minutes before I could say anything, and then I told him my problem. That same night, he called the president of Princeton, William Bowen, and the president of Princeton told him right away that I could stay. He did what I thought was the most courageous thing to do and really helped me out.
How have people received your book and documentary?
The reception in general has been very positive, because people see the human side. My book was not meant to be a political book, but it was just meant to show the human side of living here as an immigrant family.
What made you choose to study medicine?
I would see doctors and nurses come to my house to help my grandmothers in Colombia, and I would see how much relief they brought to them with just simple medications. I wanted to do the same for other people and to do that through medicine.
What do you like about your job?
The CEO, Michael Dowling, he wanted to make this hospital state-of-the-art and deliver state-of-the-art care to the patients in these communities, which happen to be communities that are very disadvantaged, whether it’s African-American communities or Hispanic communities that have a lot of immigrants. And that’s one of the reasons that I was recruited to come here. In fact, I wrote an article for Newsday right after the election of our president because there was a lot of fear in the Hispanic community for patients to even come to the emergency rooms, because they were afraid that they were going to be asked for documents and they [hospital officials] were going to call immigration [authorities]. One of the points I made in that article was that patients did not need to fear because we weren’t going to be asking for documents, we weren’t going to call immigration. They were just going to get the same care that other people got, whether they had documents or not.