My first picture in America: October 27, 1978



Please Share Your Story

America is still the land of immigrants. Newcomers to our shores constantly enrich our culture and contribute their vision and skills to our society. In large measure, they make our nation what it is.

 Not all of them arrive with a visa.

 Undocumented tells a story both typical and extraordinary of one undocumented immigrant in America. From the hazardous environment that inspired his family’s desire to come to America, to the fear of deportation and the struggle of assimilation in the United States, to surprise opportunities for naturalization and success in the heart of American social institutions, Undocumented portrays the history of Colombian American Harold Fernandez with truth and poignancy. In the process it causes the reader to reflect on what it means that millions of other immigrants, documented and otherwise, are streaming into America every year.

 The story begins in one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellín, Colombia—a city that was center stage for the growth of the infamous Medellín cartel headed by drug lord Pablo Escobar. It details the struggles of Fernandez’s family in a place where many of the people who became financially successful were those who took part in drug trafficking. It further provides a vivid description of daily life and violence in a town held hostage by the ruthless gangs, hired assassins, and other criminals associated with the drug cartels. The author played soccer on the same streets where children around his own age were killing each other.

 When Fernandez was thirteen, his parents initiated a secret plan to smuggle him and his brother into the United States, where the parents had already settled illegally. He traveled to the Bahamas in a plane among other undocumented immigrants pretending to be tourists, with the intention of crossing the water in a small boat to the coast of Florida. A trip that usually took three days was extended into a two-week ordeal on the small island of Bimini before Fernandez could embark on a dramatic six-hour journey in the waters of the Bermuda Triangle during the hurricane month of October 1978.

 For the nine years that Fernandez lived in America as an undocumented immigrant, he experienced many struggles and conflicts. While living an underground existence, legally speaking, the young man found inspiration and motivation to improve his life. Living with his family in New York, he learned English, excelled in school, athletics, and the Boy Scouts, and graduated as the valedictorian in his high school class. When applying for admission to college, he needed to use a forged Social Security card and green card, but his deception worked: he was accepted into Princeton University.

 Princeton, the dean of foreign students discovered that the student was an undocumented alien. The school’s administration met over a period of several weeks to discuss the fate of this student who had broken Princeton’s honor code by lying about his legal status on his admission application. In the end, the university granted him a pardon and decided to keep him in the student body. The process of gaining legal residency involved support from President Ronald Reagan, New Jersey’s governor Thomas Kean, and Senator Bill Bradley. After all the turmoil was over, Fernandez’s university career was capped by Princeton’s awarding him the highest distinction given to a graduating senior.

 During his university years, Fernandez decided to pursue a career in medicine and surgery. Much of the motivation for this decision came from his early experiences in Colombia and from the values and advice he received from his grandmothers. After studying at Harvard Medical School, he completed his training to become a surgeon in one of the most intense medical environments in the world: New York’s Bellevue Hospital. For two years, he spent nearly every waking hour in the wards and operating rooms of the hospital, treating patients ranging from the famous to the indigent.

 Today Fernandez is one of the most respected heart surgeons practicing in the New York area. He also participates in numerous volunteer activities to improve the cardiovascular health of people in his community. And so this man who has received so much from his new homeland now gives back in equal measure. In Undocumented he argues through his own example why America should take a more generous attitude toward immigrants even as he expresses a fierce patriotism for the land of freedom that has welcomed him in.