Tracy Wilkinson, “Mexican American astronaut isn't changing course on immigration stand,” Los Angeles, Sept 16, 2009
latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-mexico-astronaut16-2009sep16,0,7117107.story
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.
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 two weeks recently as he Twittered from the Discovery space shuttle mission and gave live interviews to local TV programs.

After the shuttle returned to this planet last week, Hernandez told Mexican television that he thought the United States should legalize the millions of undocumented immigrants living there so that they can work openly in the U.S. because they are important to the 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 told television viewers Tuesday. "Even the lawyers were speaking to me."

Hernandez was back 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 back on Earth.

Loret de Mola asked Hernandez, 47, about the controversy, and the astronaut said he stood by what he had said a day 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 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 previous day's conversation, he spoke of circling the globe in 90 minutes and marveling at a world without borders.

Hernandez, whose first language is Spanish, grew up picking cucumber in the fields of California. He joined NASA in 2004. His orbit-trotting on the Discovery mission included a salsa demo and mini-science lessons for viewers back on Earth. He made taquitos for his fellow fliers.

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

Hernandez 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's and Hernandez's parents hail from the same state, Michoacan, and the president has called the astronaut his paisano.