Director of Congestive Heart Failure Surgery at St. Francis Hospital...

Director of Congestive Heart Failure Surgery at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, Dr. Harold Fernandez, goes over the schedule with Rosauro Maray, R.N. (May 9, 2012) Credit: Newsday/Karen Wiles Stabile

Dr. Harold Fernandez performs hundreds of open-heart surgeries and other lifesaving procedures for cardiac patients at St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn.

But the long journey that took him to the operating room started with him breaking immigration laws. Fernandez was smuggled into the United States when he was 13 in a perilous trip from Medellín, Colombia, to his parents' arms in Newark.

Fernandez, a Huntington resident, has detailed his story of overcoming the odds, attending Ivy League schools and reaching his goals in a memoir published last week. He said he hopes it will inspire some people and help others reconsider immigration issues.

"When people here think about the American dream, they think about a house or a car," said Fernandez, 46. "An undocumented immigrant dreams about that little piece of paper" recognizing legal residency.

In "Undocumented: My Journey to Princeton and Harvard and Life as a Heart Surgeon," Fernandez concludes that "it is now the time for America to find a compassionate resolution to the great humanitarian tragedy affecting millions of undocumented families."

Fernandez's parents, Alberto and Angela Fernandez, fled poverty and growing violence in Colombia, reaching New York in the mid-1970s on tourist visas that then expired, he said. A few years later, they sent for their two sons.

Harold, then 13, and Byron, then 11, flew from Colombia to Panama, then to Jamaica and from there to the Bahamas on tourist visas. They took a small plane to the island of Bimini and, while stranded there, survived partly by eating coconut meat, he said.

The boys were among 10 people who rode in a smuggler's small motor boat through a stormy, dark sea to an abandoned port near Miami -- their first U.S. stop before a flight to Newark.

Once they settled in West New York, N.J., Fernandez excelled in academics, becoming his high school's valedictorian and attending Princeton University. When his undocumented status was discovered during a routine documents request for foreign students, he feared his dream of becoming a doctor had been dashed. But the university decided to sponsor him on full scholarship, Fernandez wrote in the memoir.

He later went to Harvard University, where he earned his medical degree, and New York University, where he completed surgical training. An immigration judge eventually granted his family their documentation in 1986. Harold Fernandez became a U.S. citizen in 1992 and started working at St. Francis in 2001.

"He epitomizes the immigrant story," said Jack Soterakis, St. Francis' chief medical officer. "That's what the United States is all about, giving a chance to advance to individuals who work hard."

Fernandez received a double-star rating from the New York State Department of Health in 2010 because of the low mortality rate of his patients over a two-year period.

Fernandez's memoir comes as young undocumented immigrants are calling for the passage of DREAM Act laws that would grant them state-funded tuition aid and federally recognized legal status.

Opponents view those proposals as rewards for illegal actions. Such policies, immigration enforcement advocates say, would only lead to more illegal immigration.

An estimated 2 million young immigrants -- 100,000 of whom live in New York -- came or stayed illegally as minors, said Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a pro-enforcement group in Washington, D.C.

"People can have compelling stories, but that should not necessarily be the basis for public policy," he said. "The counterexample of someone who comes as a child and commits a series of crimes is no more illustrative of that illegal immigrant population. We have to think about both the costs and benefits of legalization."

Fernandez says he sees why some Americans are angry about illegal immigration. But he wants them to consider his perspective.

"There's no way of getting around the fact that people like me did break a law, but it's not a criminal law," Fernandez said. "America throughout its history has been a country of second opportunities."

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