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Breaking down barriers: Hugs Not Walls event reunites separated families

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

EL PASO – Sandra Gueta waited with hundreds of other families near the border and scanned the crowd on the other side in Mexico searching for her mother. “I don’t see her, but I know she’s here,” said Gueta, tears welling up in her eyes.

Gueta and her husband Lorenzo got up early and made the drive from Chaparral on Saturday morning to be part of the 5th annual Hugs Not Walls event organized by the Border Network for Human Rights. The event gives hundreds of families, many separated by deportations, the chance to reunite with relatives.

The annual Hugs Not Walls gathering at the border gave many mothers and grandmothers the chance to see children and grandchildren a day before Mother’s Day. (Angela Kocherga/Albuquerque Journal)

“They came all the way from Durango to see me for just a few minutes, but that’s better than nothing,” said Gueta. She had not seen her mother in Mexico for more than a decade.

“Today, the border is the new Ellis Island. This where hope starts. This is where the pursuit of happiness begins,” said Fernando Garcia, director of The Border Network for Human Rights speaking to the crowd.

The gathering of tearful families embracing at the border came a day before Mother’s Day and the same week Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new zero tolerance policy for families.

“If you cross this border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple,” Sessions said during a visit to San Diego. “If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”

Father Ismael “Melo” Moreno director of Radio Progreso in Honduras doubts the policy will serve as a deterrent for desperate migrants who feel forced to flee their home countries.

“If they separate families and children, what they’re doing is increasing the sadness and anguish but not decreasing the phenomenon of migration,” said Father Moreno. He attended the Hugs Not Walls event during a visit to the border to receive a humanitarian award from Annunciation House, an organization that helps migrants and refugees.

There has been a spike in Central American families illegally crossing the New Mexico border since last fall. Annunciation House, which serves as a temporary shelter, is helping about 350 parents with kids a week released by the Border Patrol because the detention facilities are not designed for families. Most adults wear a locked GPS ankle monitor so authorities can track them down if they don’t show up for immigration court dates.

The Barragan family introduces two new babies, one born in the U.S., the other in Mexico, during the Hugs Not Walls event on the border in El Paso on Saturday.

The Hugs Not Walls event required months of planning and international cooperation. Both Border Patrol agents and Mexican Federal Police officers kept a watchful eye on the gathering as small groups of people were allowed a few minutes to hug each other in the dry river bed of the Rio Grande, the international boundary line.

Volunteers also helped with the crowd. Jerry Solorzano, coordinator the U.S. Christian Chaplain Association in Hobbs, drove to the border with his group to offer water, Gatorade, and prayers for families.

“It’s really nice to see families come together and hug their loved ones,” said Solorzano.

“This is an emotional event.”

Martin Portillo, 22, used the opportunity to propose to his girlfriend Daisy Arvizu, 21, so her father and other relatives from Ciudad Juárez could be present.

“Families want to be together especially for these moments,” said Portillo.

He’s a U.S. citizen. She is a student and DACA recipient and worries if the program ends so will her future with her fiancé.

“If that happens, I won’t be able to be with him,” said Arvizu.

But on this day she was basking in the moment surrounded by family from both sides of the border.

“I’m very happy. This was a surprise.”