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For Mexican families separated by the border, a 20-minute reunion

Border Angels initiative allows people to meet briefly in no-man’s land at Tijuana crossing

US border guards watch as families from both sides of the fence greet each other.
US border guards watch as families from both sides of the fence greet each other.

On day 101 of the Trump administration, there is still no start on building the wall between Mexico and the United States, despite the president’s promise. Instead, at a section of the border where a wall already exists, a small rusty gate separating San Diego from Tijuana was opened and families were able to meet in no man’s land for a few minutes to give each other a hug.

For the first time in seven years, Jeanette Lorenzo, 31, was able to put her arms around her mother. While TV cameras filmed the scene, border patrol agents kept a keen eye out, making sure no Mexicans crossed the line onto the US side or vice versa.

Mother and daughter didn’t say much through their tears, just that they loved each other. The reunion lasted three minutes – a three-minute embrace after seven years. “It was difficult to let go of her when they told me it was time,” said Jeanette. “It seemed like half a minute. I wanted to tell her so many things and hug her and not let her go.”

How is it possible that a little girl has never been able to hug her father?

Enrique Morones of Border Angels

The Lorenzo family is one of thousands in southern California that have lost members to the other side of the fence. Those on one side have no papers and those on the other can’t cross. Twenty-two years ago, Jeanette’s parents entered California with their four children illegally. Now Jeanette’s mother Reina is back in Mexico, after she was deported, while Jeanette is protected by Barack Obama’s DACA program, which allows illegal immigrants to stay if they arrived as children. This status does not give Jeanette the right of return if she leaves the United States. So she stays in San Diego while Reina remains in Tijuana to be as close to her as possible. “The most difficult thing about being here is not having my children with me,” says Reina through the border fence where she spent hours talking with Jeanette this morning.

The meeting point is a 20-meter no-man’s land between the two borders. On weekend mornings, people pass through the first fence and approach the second to speak to their loved ones in Tijuana’s Parque de la Amistad. This second fence, which is right on the ‘line’, is covered with a tightly woven mesh that allows people to do no more than touch the tips of each other’s fingers. On the US side, the mesh is gray. But when the gate is open, you can see a heart has been painted on the other side.

Jeanette Lorenzo hugs her mother at the border.
Jeanette Lorenzo hugs her mother at the border. EFE

Jeanette Fernández lives in Chula Vista, just a few kilometers inside the United States, though she says she might as well be living in New York. She can only see her father, Javier, on weekends through the mesh, which is not much different from visiting someone in jail. This Sunday she was able to embrace her father for the first time in 10 years.

These snatched reunions are the result of an agreement between the border patrol and a local NGO in San Diego called Border Angels whose director Enrique Morones has a good working relationship with the chief of the border patrol in the San Diego region. Three years ago, they agreed to open the gate for the first time, for just two minutes. This Sunday six families were able to reunite for 20 minutes.

The meeting point is a 20-meter no-man’s land between the two borders

The first such reunion took place on Mexico’s Children’s Day – April 30 – and now they believe they can also do it on International Children’s Day in November, making it a bi-annual event. This is the fifth time it has been done in three years. “Bit by bit,” says Morones. “My goal is to be able to do it every weekend.”

Morones believes in the power of images. These hugs in no-man’s-land are heartrending. And now they are being seen by the entire world, as similar cross-border meetings take place in Texas, with Arizona preparing to follow suit.

“This image has to reach Washington,” says Morones. “I don’t care who the president is. The image has to be seen by those who have the power to vote on reforms to migration policy. How is it possible that a little girl has never been able to hug her father?”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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