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In The News

Feb. 22, 2001, 12:23AM

American in Fox Cabinet aims to protect Mexicans here

Houston Chronicle

As a bicultural child growing up in Texas and Mexico, Juan Hernandez says, he was treated as an outsider on both sides of the border.

Now, Hernandez, 45, is welcome wherever he goes.

The former University of Texas at Dallas professor was recently named the first American to serve in a Mexican president's Cabinet, and suddenly he is barraged with phone calls from politicians on both sides of the Rio Grande seeking his help.

With all the talk of a new era of U.S.-Mexico cooperation, Hernandez, who heads the Mexican president's office for the protection of immigrants, sees himself as sort of a symbol of the possibility for working together.

"My mother is from the United States, my father is from Mexico, and I grew up going back and forth," Hernandez said during a visit to Houston to meet with Mexican immigrant leaders Wednesday. "I've been talking about the need for better relations for a long time, and I have never seen anything like this."

When Mexican President Vicente Fox met with President Bush last week, Hernandez was there as an adviser to Fox. And when a group of Democrats from the U.S. Congressional Hispanic Caucus met with Fox on Tuesday, Hernandez was there.

He is ready to work with U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, on a new proposal to send thousands of Mexicans to the United States as guest workers. And he is prepared to work with a new commission of top U.S. and Mexican officials who will address the issue of cross-border migration.

Perhaps most importantly, Hernandez will serve as an advocate for Mexicans living in the United States in a Mexican administration that has promised to pay attention to its emigrants as never before. Fox has called the Mexicans living abroad "heroes."

His administration has promised to organize the U.S.-based Mexicans to protect their rights while here, and make them more welcome should they return home to look for work.

Fox plans to promote economic development in rural areas of Mexico where emigration traditionally has been highest, so future generations can find work at home.

Hernandez says the $6 billion or more sent home every year by Mexicans living in this country should earn them some respect.

"If they are contributing to Mexico, they have rights" in Mexico, said Hernandez. "But if they are living in the United States, they also have rights and responsibilities here."

Hernandez believes U.S.-based Mexicans should become involved in society here, even voting. His new office is designed to help immigrants organize themselves.

That is clearly a big task. The latest available U.S. census figures show about 7 million Mexicans living in the United States, though Hernandez says the real figure may be more than double that.

He sees his job as one of giving respect and legitimacy to the migrants, something he says was never done in the past.

"For decades, these individuals had to live in the shadows," he said. "They provided wealth to both the United States and Mexico, but both countries closed their eyes and ignored them."

Still, the prospect of a foreign government working to organize its citizens here worries conservatives, who accuse the Mexicans of trying to obtain too much influence in this country.

"The appointment of Hernandez continues the trend of the Mexican government to try to influence our domestic affairs for reasons not exactly clear," said Dan Stein, who heads the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Cooperating with Mexico, he said, appears to be the rage in Washington, among Democrats and Republicans.

"There seems to be a real Texas link here," Stein said, suggesting that Gramm's guest worker proposal and Bush's move toward better relations may be linked to promoting business interests in Texas.

With improved transportation and communication, a growing number of immigrants have begun to live in the two countries. Mexico even approved a bill allowing dual citizenship, which means U.S.-naturalized Mexicans can now be citizens of both countries.

The cross-border ties have begun to influence politics. A Mexican living in California was recently elected to Congress in Mexico. And a native of Mexico has been elected to the U.S. Congress.

But in Texas, the phenomenon known as transnationalism has gone on for decades.

Hernandez was born in Fort Worth in 1955, the son of a Mexican immigrant attorney and an American woman of European descent.

His parents moved back and forth, though Hernandez was raised mostly in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, where he was educated through high school.

Hernandez and two siblings were born in Texas, but his three other siblings were born in Mexico. All six children were registered as citizens in both countries, and grew up carrying two passports.

Though he now speaks English without an accent, he says his English was imperfect as a kid.

Visiting Fort Worth in the early 1960s, Hernandez recalled, his mother asked him to call a local swimming pool to find out how much it cost to swim there.

"The woman who answered the phone asked me what color I was," said Hernandez, then about 9. "I turned to my mother and asked: "Mom, what color am I?' "

His mother decided they wouldn't swim in that pool.

Hernandez got his doctorate at Texas Christian University. He taught literature at TCU and in California before arriving in Dallas, where he started a Mexican-American studies program at UT-Dallas.

Hernandez embraces the trend toward transnationalism, except for one element: voting.

"I have my reservations about whether people should be allowed to vote in both places," he said. Asked if he had done that, he declined to answer.

"I pay taxes in both places," he said.

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