LAREDO, Texas – Like much of the nation, Alonzo Pena said his heart was touched by the story of Rosa Maria Hernandez, the 10-year-old with cerebral palsy guarded by U.S. Border Patrol agents at a Corpus Christi hospital. The ambulance taking her in for emergency surgery was stopped late last month at a checkpoint east of Laredo.
Now there’s an unlikely bond between Pena, the former ICE deputy director under President George W. Bush, and a little girl, in the U.S. illegally since she was a baby, who could still be deported.
Her mother, Felipa De La Cruz, said she finally saw Pena’s emotional reaction as he watched videos of Border Patrol agents outside Rosa Maria’s hospital room, then later detaining her at a shelter in San Antonio.
“He was crying,” De La Cruz said.
After learning the child had been released, Pena contacted her attorney, Alex Galvez, about meeting Rosa Maria and her family.
Wednesday afternoon, he was in their living room when she came home from school. He came bearing gifts, an official World Series T-shirt of the winning Houston Astros, and a doll that she lovingly embraced.
Meeting Rosa Maria, or Rosita, as she’s known by her family, and her mother reinforced what Pena said he believes.
“This was totally unjustified,” Pena said. “There’s no way you can try to explain how she poses any threat to the community, to the nation.”
Rosita’s mother also agreed when Pena said detaining her daughter was a misuse of federal tax dollars intended to protect the nation's security against terrorists and criminals.
“I just can’t see in any way how detaining this little girl and separating her from her family served that purpose,” Pena said.
Pena told Rosita’s mother that he could relate to their situation because he, too, had a sick child at the same hospital. His 9-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer there, and died five years later in Houston.
De La Cruz said when Rosita saw herself on television, her daughter asked, “Why was this happening? When was it? I wasn’t aware of it.”
Her mother said Rosita has the intellectual ability of a child half her age.
When someone at her school told Rosita she was famous, she asked, “What’s famous?”
De La Cruz said unlike her, Rosita was remarkably strong throughout the 10-day ordeal. She said perhaps it helped that Border Patrol agents would visit her school, bringing their canines, even playing with Rosita and the other children.
“Because of that she wasn’t afraid of them. She didn’t cry or anything,” De La Cruz said.
After she was at the shelter, her mother said, Rosita was sad because she’d never been away from her family.
De La Cruz said, thankfully, Rosita was allowed to call home at bedtime.
“I would tell her that God was at her side to take care of her, and a little angel and the Virgen de Guadalupe,” her mother said. “She would tell me, ‘OK, I’ll go to sleep now.’”
Now that Rosita is home, her mother said she checks on her regularly.
She said Rosita still has the Bible, a drawing of La Virgen and a crucifix at her bed.
“She never did that before,” her mother said.
De La Cruz said Rosita told her when her father was told at the shelter she could go home with him, he gasped at the news.
In addition to several hugs from Rosita, her mother thanked Pena for speaking out on her child’s behalf. His interview, like Rosita’s story, got national attention.
De La Cruz said she believes if it were not for Pena and others like U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, who helped gain her release, “My daughter and I would be in Mexico now.”
Pena said in the future, he hopes the U.S. government will realize, “We’re not looking at a commodity. We’re dealing with human beings here.”