Since fall 2016, more than a thousand families have participated in brief reunions along the U.S.-Mexico border in the middle of the dry Rio Grande riverbed near downtown El Paso.
But on Saturday, the semiannual event, called “Hugs Not Walls,” had to be moved to a dirt road a few miles to the northwest because the U.S. is constructing an 18-foot wall where the cross-border reunions had been taking place.
Nearly 250 families arrived early Saturday morning at the new site in Sunland Park, N.M., to await their three-minute mini-meetings with relatives whom they hadn’t seen, in some cases, for decades.
Along the stretch of dirt, Border Patrol agents opened up the fence at 9 a.m. to allow people from the U.S. side to walk through to those waiting for them in a rural neighborhood of the city of Juárez.
“I believe this is more symbolic than even before, because families hugging, crossing these walls — they overcame this wall,” said Fernando Garcia, director of the Border Network for Human Rights, which operates the program. “People are able to see their families, embrace them and at least be together momentarily.”
Garcia estimated that 3,000 people took part Saturday.
First in line was Ruby Almaraz of Colorado Springs, Colo., who spotted her father through the border fence before she even reached it. Almaraz hadn’t hugged her dad, Jaime, in 23 years. He was deported when she was a baby.
Almaraz had driven 12 hours for the meeting, accompanied by her sister, mother and 7-year-old daughter.
Soon, they would file through the opening in the fence, an air horn signaling the start of each 180-second get-together, and after walking through an opening in the fence, Ruby embraced her dad across yellow caution tape, used to signify the border line.
U.S. Border Patrol agents and Mexican police kept close watch to ensure that no one stepped across that line. Families on the Mexican side wore white T-shirts, those in the U.S. wore blue. A sign on the Mexico side read, Abrazos no muros, Spanish for “Hugs Not Walls.”
During the brief session, Jaime Almarez met his granddaughter for the first time in person and was able to hug her too.
As for conversation, there was barely enough time for family members to say they missed each other and that, one day, they hoped to be together again.
Then, the air horn sounded once again and Ruby and her relatives were ushered back to the other side of the fence.
“It was amazing,” she said, as she walked away from the fence. “I can’t explain it.”
“I could,” her daughter shouted. “We were just so happy.”
On the Mexican side of the border, Juárez residents took in the scenes unfolding outside their homes. Two boys sat perched on a roof, watching as families broke down in tears. One woman held her baby in her arms as she embraced relatives and they hugged the baby.
Over and over, a taped version of Los Tigres del Norte’s song “America” played over the crowds.
“Todos son Americanos, sin importar el color,” the band crooned. “We are all American, no matter our color.”
Some people were overcome with emotion, collapsing into tears once the air horn sounded and they had to walk away.
Yadira De la Cruz’s family huddled together steps away from the fence, the children crying as well.
Nine of them had arrived that day to Sunland Park, anxious to visit uncles, brothers, cousins and parents who live in Mexico.
De la Cruz and her husband hadn’t seen them for four years.
“The time was so short, but at least we could be together again,” she said. “They hope that we’ll all be together again soon.”
Diana Moraga left Mexico six years ago and has not been able to return to see her family in Juárez since. She went to the event with her husband, 9-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.
Her family spent the short time embracing her and the children. When the air horn sounded, she kissed her mother on the cheek and waved goodbye.
“I never thought I’d see them again,” Moraga said.
Garcia of the immigration reform group thanked Border Patrol agents for working with the organizers to relocate the event. Participants also thanked them.
In El Paso, a four-mile section of existing fence is being removed and an 18-foot-high wall of steel bollard posts is to be constructed in its place. The $22-million construction project is expected to be completed in late April 2019, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“This new wall will be far more durable and far more effective in deterring would-be illegal entrants,” the agency said in September.
As Garcia stood near an agent, he tapped his hand against the fence.
“This is not the solution to whatever immigration problems we have,” Garcia said. “This is a political statement.”
Shortly before 11 a.m., as the event came to a close, Epifania Castro, 63, took a second turn meeting with her son and daughter-in-law. The El Paso resident hadn’t seen her son since he was deported 15 years ago.
She had been scared to come, she said, fearful that Border Patrol agents would deport her. But she had so wanted to embrace her son that she was willing to take the risk.
As their meeting concluded, she made the sign of the cross on her daughter-in-law, then her son — el padre, el hijo y el espíritu santo — touching her fingers to their lips before saying goodbye.