Why you should care
Because the family separation policy is much more than just a sticky political issue.
Families, sadly, are separated every day. They have been; they will be. For a wide variety of reasons, very few of them good. But for this moment in time, we’re both noting and noticing that while the faces change, the unpleasantness remains the same. Which is how we ended up at Hugs Not Walls — an event in the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande, where El Paso, Texas, meets Juárez, Mexico — along with families separated by deportation and immigration status before it became the subject of major political debate.
They’re allowed to see each other for only four minutes. On Saturday, May 12, I followed one family’s four-minute reunion on the river.
Welcome to the new normal.
On Friday, May 11, I met Blanca, a woman with a shy smile holding the hand of her 3-year-old granddaughter, Angelique. Her daughter, Elizabeth, 28, stood beside her inside the El Paso Border Network for Human Rights center for the preliminary meeting of Hugs Not Walls. Together with about 400 other families, they would wait to see family members confined to the Mexican side of the border.
Some people had come from as far as Kansas City, or San Francisco. On the following day they would go to Chihuahuita Park, a sliver of old El Paso nestled up against the border fence. From this neighborhood, the families would be led through an opening in the border fence to wait for their number to be called. Once called, Blanca’s family would be led in a group of 15 families to the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande to hug the family of Blanca’s oldest son, Omar, for four minutes.
If you’re asking why Blanca, 61, doesn’t just visit Omar in Mexico, understand that this would mean not returning to the United States, where she’s lived her life the past 17 years, raised most of her five children and currently has a home. The last time she crossed the border, she overstayed her visa. For those who are undocumented and live within the border zone, life is confined to the small area between the actual border and the checkpoints of the interstates.
Omar’s teenage years were marked by rebelliousness. The family moved to Fresno, California, for a short time to be with Blanca’s sister, and eventually left Omar with the family in California because of his behavior and involvement in gangs. Soon he returned to his family in Juárez, where he continued running with the same kind of crowd.
“When he came back, he was doing the same thing,” Blanca says. “He wanted to cross drugs, and they caught him on the bridge.” At the age of 15, he was put in prison for two years and, upon being released, immediately deported to Juárez. By that time, Blanca was already back in El Paso, and the two would not have contact for the next 17 years.
“Maybe because he was a kid, he thought it was the easiest way to help my mom because he couldn’t get a job over there,” explains Elizabeth, Omar’s younger sister, describing her older brother’s incidents with the law. She is able to regularly see Omar because she has U.S. citizenship, but she spends most of her days in her El Paso apartment with her mother, who helps take care of her kids, Keyshawn and Angelique.
When I met Omar in person in his small concrete home in Ciudad Juárez, I never would have thought he had been involved in a gang. He gave me a handshake and a hug, welcoming me into his home. We spoke for a long time about his life, his regrets, his wishes and dreams. I photographed him and his mother hugging during the brief four minutes they were given to see each other on the riverbed, and could see the love he has for his family.
The buildup to those four minutes was a long process. The family’s number was 312, so they were closer to the end of the line. Everyone arrived at about 7:30 a.m. to prepare and get their blue shirts, which indicated they had come from the United States side. The temperature was 95 degrees, without a cloud in the sky. The 400 or so families struggled to fit under the tents as the sun beat down, while volunteers passed out water and made sure families queued up for the next round of hugs.
A young boy used binoculars to look for his family members on the other side, while almost everyone called their family members to find out where they were. Not only did immediate family come, but extended family as well. All of this was for just four minutes of time — to hold, kiss and simply see each other in person, something most of us take for granted.
This was the second time Blanca and her family came to the event. They found out about it on TV, and Blanca was happy to have the chance to see her son’s family. “We saw one of the first events on TV, and she couldn’t believe it,” says Elizabeth, describing her mother’s reaction. “She was like, ‘Someone help me so I can get information about how to sign up!’” And so they did.
“I don’t know how to explain, but it makes me very happy,” explains Blanca. “Because I will actually be able to see him. But I also feel sad because it’s just an instant, and then we have to separate.” The short duration of the families’ encounters on the river is the hardest part to witness. For such a happy moment to have to come to an end so quickly almost seems to defeat the purpose, but it’s the best that can be done given the conditions and timing of the event.
Omar is now 33, and works in a maquiladora in Ciudad Juárez making a salary of less than $100 per week. Ironically enough, he lives in an area on the east side of the city, which is almost directly across the border fence from his mother. It’s a hard life, which he has devoted to his children, Abraham, 12, and Dennis, 15. The years apart from his mother have made it so that she remembers him only how he used to be when he was a boy.
“My mom hardly knows who I am,” Omar says. “In reality, she may think I am still the cholo pandillero de la calle from before, but I tell her, I am not that person anymore, I have changed.”
For something that Omar was involved in as a kid, most likely because of his socioeconomic status, his family has paid a steep price. It’s unlikely that Omar will ever be able to set foot in the United States again, but the family is in the process of trying to secure legal status for Blanca through an immigration attorney. If all goes well, Blanca will be able to visit her son’s family by the end of the year. For this, Omar has high hopes.
“My desire, I think, is more than clear,” says Omar. “My desire is to be with my whole family, so that we know each other well, because my mom doesn’t know my kids. She doesn’t know more than when she hugged them. She doesn’t know how my son is. She knows he exists and his name is Abraham, and that he is my son. Nothing more. She doesn’t know how he feels, what he wants, what he likes and doesn’t like. I want my family to be together so we can know each other.”