SUNLAND PARK, NEW MEXICO — Maribel Gomez and her family drove 14 hours from Utah to the New Mexico border with two goals in mind: to see her elderly aunt and to have her Mexican family meet her children for the first time.
On Sunday morning, Maribel and her family were among the 50 or so immigrant families taking part in the “Keep our dream alive” event, a rare reunion for people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, ten miles west of El Paso along the Sunland Park-Anapra border wall. Police tape cordoned off the area, allowing organizers to line up groups of people by number and call them up family by family to meet with relatives on the other side of the border. Meanwhile, alert U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents were stationed nearby in Chevrolet Suburbans at a distance that appeared to be out of the way of the event, but also within sight.
When called, each family went up to their side of the border wall — steel ballards jutting up 18 feet into the desert sky and five feet down — throwing arms through the few inches separating each beam to grab at their relatives. Through the steel beams, people held each other’s hands, lingered over facial features, and patted the heads of children. They leaned in to listen to relatives over the sounds of passing trains, one government drone, another government helicopter, and event music.
“This is the first time they’re going to meet my kids,” Maribel, a 33-year-old immigrant, told ThinkProgress as she waited her turn to see her relatives. Donning a bright blue shirt provided by organizers to differentiate her from the reporters and spectators in winter coats, Maribel said she hoped to see her elderly Mexican uncle and aunt, two nieces, and a baby she hasn’t met yet, along with other members of her father’s family.
It has been 14 years since the last time she saw her aunt and uncle, but this meeting may also be Maribel’s last. As a recipient of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Maribel was granted temporary work authorization and deportation relief in two-year increments. In September, President Donald Trump phased out the program, allowing some immigrants whose DACA status expires before March 5, 2018 to renew their status for one final two-year extension. For every business day beginning March 6, more than 1,700 DREAMers will lose their DACA status, according to data culled by the advocacy group FWD.us.
Maribel said she will lose her DACA status when it expires in late March 2018, rendering her unable to travel to the borderlands in the future due to interior Border Patrol checkpoints within the 100-mile perimeter of the U.S. border. These checkpoints are used by the government to inquire about residence status. She and her family came to the United States when she was 15, but she was “quickly deported,” she said. She came back but has been unable to adjust her legal status despite now being married to a U.S. citizen and having U.S. citizen children.
Several northbound Border Patrol interior checkpoints exist along Interstates 10 and 25, the only two interstate highways that run through Utah to Sunland Park. Approximately 170 interior checkpoints wrap 100 miles into the interior of the U.S. border, functioning as a way for the federal government to intercept drugs and undocumented immigrants coming through Mexico and Canada. At these checkpoints, agents are allowed to ask whether drivers and passengers are U.S. citizens. Non-citizens will be asked to provide documents that prove lawful presence in this country. For now, Maribel’s DACA status allows her to be waved through. In the future, these interior checkpoints could land her in deportation proceedings when she loses her status. Already, undocumented lives have been altered because of such interior checkpoints.
“Numero siete,” the organizers called to the line of families impatiently pacing in place near the yellow police tape. It was Maribel’s turn. Rapidly, she moved past several observant organizers and chaplains who checked to make sure her hands and baby stroller were empty. With her bouncing baby Alonzo in hand and daughter Vanessa by her side, they moved towards a part of the wall where several eager Mexicans on the other side of the wall shouted for her attention.
“How are you, love?” Maribel said, craning her neck to see her relatives past the steel beams. She frantically looked for her aunt across three slots in the steel beams. Looking over her nieces who she hadn’t seen in a long time, she smiled widely.
“You’re so big.”
“So nice to meet you.”
Maribel’s nieces promised to visit her on their vacations. Everyone commented on Alonzo’s chubby cheeks. Introductions were made between nine-month-old Alonzo and another baby — who looked in silence at each other through the steel fence — with great cheer and laughter. Later, Maribel met up with an elderly aunt who had gotten lost getting through the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Teary-eyed, the aunt grabbed Maribel’s hands for a long time. Nearby, an old Mexican man in a cowboy hat similarly gripped his immigrant son on the U.S. side by his neck, pressing him against the fence.
Then, the meeting ended as organizers gently moved Maribel and her kids away from the border wall, allowing other families to go through the same emotional roller-coaster.
“I’ve seen my nieces,” Maribel said while bouncing baby Alonzo up and down. “I promised them I would give them a hug. Unfortunately we have to do it through the big fence but at least it’s something. We can touch each other. I don’t know. There’s no words.”
“They say I look exactly like my mom,” she said, later recounting the conversation she had with her family. “I haven’t seen them in so many years.”
Referencing what her family said about Alonzo, she said, “And my son is too big. He looks like my brother.”
“And all of my nieces — they talk about visiting me on vacations,” Maribel added. “But it’s hard to get them visas too.”
This event provided a rare reunion approved under the watchful eye of the CBP agency, the fourth in a series of in-person meetings between immigrants living in the United States and their family members in Mexico since this most current steel wall went up last year. In previous years, advocates held annual Day of the Dead meetings at the border. The advocacy group Border Network for Human Rights (BHNR), which organized the event on the U.S. side, was supposed to hold “Hugs not walls,” a gathering of immigrants in the middle of the Rio Grande River, at low tide. That event has been postponed to next May. Previous iterations of “Hugs not walls” allowed people to physically meet in the middle of the river to hug while wearing easily identifiable colored shirts. Maribel won’t be going to the next event on account of her DACA expiration.
“There’s another checkpoint on my way back home.”
“There’s another checkpoint on my way back home,” Maribel said. “And as soon as they ask me, my documents will be expired… so this was the last opportunity.”
Maribel’s dilemma of not being able to visit her Mexican family in the future underscores the dark side of the Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies. Her U.S. children are here so her life is also here. In the event she gets deported, they likely won’t go with her to Mexico.
“I really want my kids to go to college and have a better life,” Maribel said. “I think that’s what everybody wants for their kids.”
President Donald Trump has pressured Congress to fund the construction of a border wall that extends the entirety of the southern U.S. border to prevent the inflow of drugs. The president double downed again on border wall construction last week, saying that he wanted “borders on top of borders.” Practically speaking, such a policy would appear to have much crueler implications for immigrants.
“We live in a border that we believe is heavily militarized,” Fernando Garcia, the founding Director of the Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR), told ThinkProgress after the event ended. “When I say that, it [means] you can see these walls, but also things you cannot see like drones in the sky… night vision, sensors, weapons, so we have seen increased militarization, especially in the last 20 years.”
Sunland Park didn’t always have the 18-foot tall border wall. Completed last year, the most recent iteration of the border wall came at a cost of $11 million authorized by the Secure Fence Act of 2006. From the 1990s to 2016, a 10-feet high chain-link fence marked the Sunland Park-Anapra border. These steel ballards were put in place under the Obama administration to replace fence that had degraded, according to a February 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, or was purposefully cut through by smugglers in some areas of Sunland Park. Now, Trump’s call to build up more walls to stop “drug dealers” doesn’t appear to match the data on the ground. Border apprehensions are at a record 45-year low. And drug cartels have instead turned to exploiting a weakness in the postal system to import drugs.
But if the government acts to install “borders on top of borders,” a budget line item that could mean not just fencing but aerial surveillance, that could mean more deaths as people find other dangerous ways to evade border agents when entering the country and heavy surveillance across border towns.
“This militarization has a human consequence and a consequence that people’s rights and lives are in danger at the border,” Garcia said. “[Politicians] always say that we need to know more about the border, we need to militarize the border that more than it is already, that we need to built more border walls and fencing. What we want to say is that we need to recognize that [the government has] done too much already, too fast, and we need to be very aware of the dangers of keeping this region militarized.”
Before Maribel walked back to her car with her children, two nieces on the Mexican side of the fence peeked through the steel beams.
“Bye, Auntie. I love you,” one niece said.
“Bye, Auntie. I love you a lot. Bye, Bye. See you soon,” another young niece said. Maribel turned one last time to kiss her goodbye.
Special thanks to Kira Brekke and Yvette Cabrera for translation help.