Immigrant tale: Single mom sells tamales to afford citizenship application
BY NOUR HABIB World Scene Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2013
1/27/13 at 7:02 AM
Almost every weekend since November, Veruska Hernandez has made tamales in the back of an east Tulsa restaurant that is owned by a friend of a friend.
But because Hernandez has a full-time job, and because the restaurant's owner lets her use the space only after normal business hours, Hernandez usually does not start work till about midnight, at times finishing as late as 5 a.m.
Hernandez got a food handler's license and began selling her tamales after a friend, Stephanie Lewis, suggested that it would be a good business. Lewis knew Hernandez was saving money to apply to become a permanent resident - she needs about $3,000 for paperwork and attorney fees - and thought that it would be a good way for the single mom to get some extra cash.
Hernandez, who submitted her application a couple of weeks ago, is now only $400 short of the amount she needs to pay off by Feb. 1. The extra money has helped because, as a single mom working as a housekeeper at a local apartment complex, $3,000 is hard to set aside.
Lewis has known Hernandez for seven years. She recalls times when Hernandez would take on side jobs, like baby-sitting, to help support herself and her daughter.
"She's been a real hard worker," Lewis said.
Lewis hopes that hard work will pay off for Hernandez. She has been helping Hernandez market her tamales on Facebook and letting people pick up their orders at her house.
"We kind of adopted the situation," said Lewis, who hopes that Hernandez will not only be able to earn the fees she needs to pay for her paperwork, but also build a clientele that will allow her to get a food truck.
Coming to America, twice
Hernandez came to Tulsa for the first time in 2001 on a tourist visa. Life in her native Venezuela was getting difficult, and she and her then-husband decided to come to America, where her husband's brother lived.
"I remember I miss my family, of course, and my food," said Hernandez, who was 23 when she came.
"But over here, it's really quiet," she said. There was little violence, compared to Venezuela.
She felt safe.
Hernandez began working at a grocery store, which sponsored her application to change her legal status and start her on the process to becoming a permanent resident. But when the store went out of business a few years later, Hernandez was out of a sponsor. Having since divorced her husband, and raising their daughter, Oriana, on her own, Hernandez decided to return to Venezuela in 2008, before her legal status expired.
Hernandez said she was afraid to remain here illegally because she thought, "OK, if (my ex-husband is) in Florida, and the police arrest me, what will happen with Oriana?"
When in Venezuela, Hernandez applied for another visa but was rejected. But living conditions got worse - the political situation made the country unstable, food and milk were often hard to find, and Hernandez had a hard time getting her daughter into school because of anti-American sentiment.
But most troubling of all was the level of violence, which 9-year-old Oriana still remembers and sometimes talks to her school counselors about. Often, they would hear gunshots from the balcony of their seventh-floor apartment, and voices yelling for people to drop to the floor to avoid bullets.
Finally, after about two years in Venezuela, Hernandez decided she had to leave anyway. She sent Oriana, an American citizen by birth, to her father in Florida, and on the same day she left for Mexico, with plans to cross the border.
"In my mind, for sure I was (coming) here. But I don't know how," Hernandez said of her determination to come back. "But when I walked for two nights, I thought, 'Oh my God, what did I do?' "
At that point, after two days of walking, it was too late to turn back.
Hernandez successfully crossed the border but was arrested about two weeks later as she was slowly making her way toward reuniting with her daughter. Hernandez spent two months in a detention center, certain that she would be deported.
"I knew I had zero chance to stay here," Hernandez remembers thinking. "I don't know how God do it for me."
"It was really scary, because I think I don't see anymore to Oriana," said Hernandez, her voice shaking slightly and tears welling up in her eyes at the memory.
But, shortly before she was to be deported, Hernandez was told she would be allowed to stay. She was given a two-year period to apply for a work permit, get a job and begin the path toward becoming a permanent resident.
Toward citizenship and a better future
Hernandez has a court hearing scheduled in August to re-evaluate her case. Aside from working on her application, she has been gathering news clips about what is happening in Venezuela, which she hopes will help convince the people reviewing her case that she cannot return there.
Having known Hernandez for so long, Lewis has seen how hard she has worked to become a citizen, taking on side jobs and moving into a smaller apartment to be able to save money for the process. Lewis' own son recently married a woman from the Philippines and is working on bringing her to America.
"It's a very big process to become a citizen, and people don't understand that," Lewis said. "People need to have a little bit more compassion for those who are trying to come here."
If Hernandez's application is approved, she will begin her path to citizenship, becoming eligible for naturalization in five years.
Hernandez said becoming a citizen is the ultimate goal and that she and her daughter love this country.
"(Oriana) has more opportunity here, and I have more opportunities here," Hernandez said.
She hopes that becoming a permanent resident will open doors for her, maybe allowing her to own a small business, like a food truck. But her priority is her daughter.
"Oriana, she has a dream, and I want to help her and support her to achieve her dream," Hernandez said.
Oriana wants to attend college and become a clothing designer, perhaps someday designing clothes for the first lady. Hernandez intends to make that happen, if she can.
She also wants the voice that becoming a citizen can give her - through the right to vote - and she wants to use that voice in the immigration debate.
"I understand they need to make sure there is just good people here," Hernandez said. "But not everybody is the same."
If an individual is law-abiding, pays taxes and does everything properly, Hernandez asks earnestly, "Why (can't they) stay here?"
Immigration numbers from 2011
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security provides the following immigration data from fiscal year 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.
- Number of persons obtaining legal permanent resident status nationwide: 1,062,040
- Number of persons obtaining legal permanent resident status in Oklahoma: 4,503
- Number of persons born in Venezuela obtaining legal permanent resident status: 9,183
- Number of persons born in Mexico obtaining legal permanent resident status: 143,446
- Number of petitions for naturalization filed: 756,008
- Number of persons naturalized nationwide: 694,193
- Number of naturalization petitions denied: 57,065
- Number of Oklahoma residents naturalized: 2,966
Hernandez's food sales
In addition to the tamales, Veruska Hernandez also makes arepas, empanadas and cachapas. For a complete menu and prices, visit the "Authentic Venezuelan Eats - Carryout and Delivery" page on Facebook at tulsaworld.com/Venezuelantamales
Orders can be made on Facebook by sending a message to the administrator of the "Authentic Venezuelan Eats - Carryout and Delivery" page or by texting 918-902-4623.
Original Print Headline: Labor of love
Nour Habib 918-581-8369
Veruska Hernandez (right), who is in the process of obtaining her U.S. citizenship, stands with her U.S.-born daughter Oriana Torrealba, 9, in front of the house where she sells tamales. Hernandez wants to become a permanent resident of the U.S. so she can raise Oriana away from the danger and challenges of her native Venezuela. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World
"I understand they need to make sure there is just good people here," Veruska Hernandez says. "But not everybody is the same." If an individual is law-abiding and does everything properly, Hernandez asks, "why (can't they) stay here?" CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World