In a Mexican city rocked by a cartel turf war, Roberto Hernandez sells fried chicken wings and logs on to the Internet at night to sing karaoke with his teenage daughter.
Hernandez committed a crime years ago in Louisiana that put him behind bars for 45 days and exiled him from the U.S. He’s built a successful business in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and supports his wife and five children who live just over the border in Laredo, Texas.
When the family gets together, it’s in Mexico — not in the U.S., where Hernandez’s wife and children were born. He is not allowed into the country without special permission from U.S. immigration authorities.
Roberto Hernandez surprised his wife earlier this year by arranging for the children’s baptisms and first communions in Mexico. They had delayed the rites, hoping to do them in Texas. But now the children are 13, 12, 11 and 9 — far past the age for baptism in the Catholic Church.
The family’s living arrangements are fractured because Hernandez and his wife, Claudia, don’t want their children to live in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. Drug-fueled violence temporarily subsided only to resurge this year with the capture of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Now cartel members are battling for dominance, with daily kidnappings and gunfire. It’s more stable north of the Rio Grande, where officials put up billboards declaring “Laredo is Safe.”
The Hernandezes believe Gov. Bobby Jindal could reunite them in the U.S. by granting a pardon. So far, Jindal hasn’t responded to their pleas despite the Hernandez family photos that litter social media and the State Capitol. A poster on a bulletin board next to the main elevator at the State Capitol shows a picture of the couple’s special needs daughter as well as a group shot of the family. In the group photo, Claudia Hernandez cradles her infant twins in her arms. The boys now are 9.
“We know that the governor’s going to sign our pardon. I don’t know why he wouldn’t,” Claudia Hernandez said.
Bossier-Webster Parishes District Attorney J. Schuyler Marvin agrees with Claudia Hernandez, saying Roberto Hernandez committed a crime, got caught and immediately cooperated with law enforcement.
“The guy did wrong. He cooperated from the get-go,” Marvin said. “To my knowledge, he’s not been in any other trouble.”
Fifteen years ago, a stranger at a gym offered Roberto Hernandez $5,000 to transport illegal drugs. All Hernandez had to do was put bags of Valium in his car and drive from Texas to Indiana. Hernandez, who was about to get married, accepted the offer.
Easy job. Easy money. Except it wasn’t that easy.
Hernandez was caught roughly 500 miles into his first delivery as a drug mule. Louisiana State Police pulled him over in Webster Parish. A judge locked him up for 45 days. Immigration officials deported him to Mexico, even though he was in the U.S. as a legal alien. Now the Rio Grande separates Hernandez from his family in Texas.
“(It was) very, very stupid. I consider myself intelligent. I went to school. I went to college. It was a very stupid mistake. I never thought about the consequences,” Roberto Hernandez said in a telephone interview.
At the time of his arrest, Hernandez was in his 30s. He had a fianceé, who later became his wife, and two years of college education. He’d lived in the U.S. since he was 18.
These days, Hernandez lives in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and owns a chicken wings restaurant that started as a corner stand. His wife and children live on the other side of the U.S. border in Laredo, Texas, three miles from his business. Hernandez was born in Mexico. His wife and children were born in the U.S. They try to get together once a month.
The Hernandezes want Jindal to reunite the family by granting a pardon that would remove the felony from Hernandez’s record, possibly paving the way for legal immigration to the U.S. The Louisiana Board of Pardons unanimously recommended a pardon in 2010. Neither the prosecutor who prosecuted Hernandez nor the judge who sentenced him is opposed. Yet Hernandez’s pardon recommendation has sat on the governor’s desk for four years.
Jindal declined an interview request about Hernandez’s case.
“We do not comment on specific pardon cases. We review pardon recommendations on a case-by-case basis to see how it would impact not just the individual seeking the pardon, but also law enforcement and the communities that are involved in the case,” the governor said in a prepared statement.
Two things are clear as Hernandez’s file continues to collect dust at the State Capitol. As governor, Jindal’s granted very few pardons. As a possible future Republican presidential nominee, Jindal’s raised concerns about the impact of Mexican immigration into the U.S.
In his first term as governor — during nearly four years in office — Jindal granted 23 pardons and one sentence reduction. Another 307 favorable recommendations from the pardon board he appointed just sat on his desk awaiting action. Jindal said at the time that he didn’t see his job as rubber stamping pardon recommendations.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to just automatically approve the ones the board sends to us,” the governor said in 2011.
A year earlier, in his book “Leadership and Crisis,” Jindal tackled Texas’ population explosion. “Our southern border is the only place in the world where a highly developed country shares a long border with a developing country. Unable to produce enough jobs for its roughly 100 million residents, Mexico is effectively exporting its unemployment to us,” the governor wrote.
Hernandez said he is ready to work if he is allowed back into the U.S. In Mexico, his life revolves around running a restaurant and other business ventures in a border town notorious for violent crime. Nuevo Laredo currently is under a travel warning by the Consulate General of the United States because of grenade attacks and gunfire.
“I go to work and I go back to the house — every single day for all the years I’ve been here,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez opened his wings restaurant in 2002. He later moved it to a shopping center. In 2007, he opened a second restaurant in Monterrey, Mexico, shortly before the city’s homicide rate tripled and businessowners came under pressure to pay or be killed. A barber was shot in the head. A cafe was sprayed with gunfire. The body count rose. Hernandez soon closed the Monterrey location.
“I was in danger. One time, they stopped me, (asked) ‘Who are you.’ I was scared. They stole money from the restaurant three times. They come in with a gun,” Roberto Hernandez said.
Claudia Hernandez said they put their children at risk just by taking them to Nuevo Laredo. “It’s so dangerous. I’ve seen dead bodies. It’s a war. You cross (the border), and you hear gunfire,” she said.
From Laredo, Texas, Claudia Hernandez maintains a Facebook page on the family’s plight. She compiled a file of character affidavits and family photos. She regularly writes the governor, begging for him to show mercy.
Her file contains a letter from a doctor about the Hernandez’s 12-year-old daughter, Yanelle, who suffers from intractable epilepsy. Yanelle has daily seizures that cannot be controlled with medication.
A letter to Jindal from Webb County Texas Deputy Sheriff Oscar Silva is in the file. He wrote in 2010: “Roberto is truly a dedicated, honest, hardworking and sincere man. While I realize we all make mistakes and Roberto’s was costly, he has paid a long 10 years deported, away from his family and unable to live a traditional lifestyle that most of us enjoy.”
Bossier-Webster Parishes District Attorney Marvin’s letter is succinct. Writing on his office letterhead, the prosecutor noted that he removed his opposition to a pardon for Roberto Hernandez. “It is my recommendation that his pardon application be GRANTED,” Marvin wrote.
Marvin wrote the letter after Claudia Hernandez arrived at his office with a three-ring binder containing what her husband has accomplished since his conviction. Marvin remembered the crime because it led to the type of cops-and-robbers chase that headlines the nightly news.
After Roberto Hernandez was pulled over in DeSoto Parish, law enforcement asked him to deliver the drugs as planned to Indiana so they could catch his connection. Roberto Hernandez agreed. In Indiana, the man picking up the drugs panicked and fled a Denny’s parking lot, wrecking his truck. He turned out to be the son of an Indiana police chief.
“(Roberto Hernandez) was a huge help, a huge help,” Marvin said.
Hernandez said most of the people he knows separated by immigration issues sneak back into the U.S. or divorce. He said he and his wife hung on.
“We’ve been fighting as a family real, real hard,” he said. “Sometimes I can’t no more. I don’t know what I’m going to do. It gets so, so heavy.”
Follow Michelle Millhollon on Twitter @mmillhollon. For more coverage of Louisiana government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/