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Mexican American astronaut isn't changing course on immigration stand

NASA went ballistic when Jose Hernandez advocated legalization of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. shortly after his return to Earth. The California-born son of migrants isn't backing down.

September 17, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MEXICO CITY — He may have soared a gazillion miles in outer space, but back here on Earth, U.S. astronaut Jose Hernandez has stepped knee-deep in controversy.

Hernandez, the California-born son of Mexican immigrants, is a full-fledged media star in Mexico. Fans here followed his every floating, gravity-free move during his two-week journey in space as he Twittered from the shuttle Discovery and gave live interviews to local TV programs.

After the shuttle returned Friday, Hernandez told Mexican television that he thought the U.S. should legalize the millions of undocumented immigrants living there so that they can work openly because they are important to the American economy.

Officials at NASA flipped. They hastened to announce that Hernandez was speaking for himself and only for himself.

"It all became a big scandal," Hernandez later told television viewers. "Even the lawyers were speaking to me."

Hernandez was back this week on Mexican network Televisa's popular morning chat show, where he has seemingly been a fixture, to update host Carlos Loret de Mola on how he was adapting to life back on Earth.

Loret de Mola asked Hernandez, 47, about the controversy, and the astronaut said he stood by what he had said earlier on the same program, advocating comprehensive immigration reform -- a keenly divisive issue in the United States.

"I work for the U.S. government, but as an individual I have a right to my personal opinions," he said in a video hookup from a Mexican restaurant owned by his wife, Adela, near NASA headquarters in Houston. "Having 12 million undocumented people here means there's something wrong with the system, and the system needs to be fixed."

He added that it seemed impractical to try to deport 12 million people. In the earlier conversation, he spoke of circling the globe in 90 minutes and marveling at a world without borders.

Hernandez, whose first language was Spanish, grew up picking cucumbers and tomatoes in the fields of California's San Joaquin Valley. His parents, Salvador and Julia, had migrated from Mexico to Northern California in the 1950s in search of work. They eventually became U.S. citizens and raised four children, including Jose, the youngest.

As a kid, Hernandez continued to visit his parents' home state of Michoacan (his cousins and aunts and uncles have been featured repeatedly in interviews in the Mexican media) and lived what he has called the typical life of a migrant worker, moving constantly with his family to follow the crops.

It was a second-grade teacher who persuaded Hernandez's parents to set down roots near Stockton to give their children a better education and more stable life. Young Jose excelled in math and today traces his dream of becoming an astronaut to the Apollo spacewalks he watched on TV.

After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering, Hernandez applied every year for 12 years to enter the space program, finally being chosen in 2004.

Mexicans were over the moon when they learned that someone with such close ties to their country would be reaching such heights. Normally, space travel is not a popular topic here, perhaps because it is such an other-world experience.

Hernandez has tweeted in English and Spanish, with the moniker Astro_Jose. His orbit-trotting on the Discovery mission included a salsa demo and mini-science lessons for viewers. He made taquitos for his fellow fliers and fielded questions from YouTube users.

TV host Loret de Mola said viewers were flooding him with one question above all: How does a humble son of peasant immigrants manage to become an astronaut?

Hernandez, a father of five, cited two crucial factors: a good education and parents who forced him to study, who checked his homework and stayed involved in his schooling.

"What I always say to Mexican parents, Latino parents, is that we shouldn't spend so much time going out with friends drinking beer and watching telenovelas, and should spend more time with our families and kids . . . challenging our kids to pursue dreams that may seem unreachable," he said.

Hernandez said he planned to visit Mexico soon to take up President Felipe Calderon on an invitation to the presidential residence for a meal. Calderon extended the invite during a nationally televised videoconference with the astronaut before the Discovery voyage. Calderon also hails from Michoacan, and the president has called the astronaut his paisano.

In his most recent tweet, Hernandez wished Mexicans a happy Independence Day on Wednesday, adding, "Now time to rest!"

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

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