It had been fifteen years since Irving Castillo had been this close to Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso. It was more than a decade since he walked the streets as a kid, or stared at the lit-up star on the southern face of El Paso’s Franklin Mountains at night. For most of that time, he didn’t come back because he couldn’t. He still can’t. When he came to the United States from Juárez as a teenager with his mother, who wanted to be closer to his father and his work, they had visas. They overstayed them, which meant he was living in this country undocumented for twelve years.
In that time, he missed weddings, birthdays, and the death of his grandfather. Though he’s a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, his immigration status put him at too great a risk to return to Mexico. So when he heard about Hugs Not Walls, a semiannual event that allows for brief reunions of families on each side of the border, he couldn’t pass up the chance.
“My kids don’t know their grandparents,” said Castillo, now 27 years old. “This will be their first time seeing their great grandma, and they won’t recognize her the way I do. My family’s missed so much it’s hard to add it all up. It’s just a million little things that have happened that they never got to see—accomplishments, hardships, things we used to experience together.”
This month, the Border Network for Human Rights hosted their sixth Hugs Not Walls event, registering nearly 250 families. By working together with the U.S. Border Patrol and Mexico’s federal police, families on the U.S. side are allowed to cross into Juárez and embrace their family members for three minutes. The event began in 2016, when the network’s founding director Fernando Garcia wanted to draw attention to the impact that anti-immigrant rhetoric was having on families. Garcia said he couldn’t sit by and do nothing when record deportations began during the Obama administration, or as then-candidate Donald Trump built a campaign around the border wall.
“We wanted to make visible the pain and the impact these policies have on immigrant families,” Garcia said. “So we conceived of an event where people who had been separated by the border could reunite in an act of love, an act of resistance, an act of protest. This border represents so much danger, pain, and death for the people who try to cross it. But there is also hope, and the idea that someone might be able to give their family a better life, that they might find protection or peace away from violence.”
This year, the network had to improvise, as an eighteen-foot wall is under construction at their usual reunion spot near the river. Organizers worked with local authorities to move the event to Sunland Park in New Mexico, eight miles away. Ahead of the reunions, organizers and local politicians lined up on the U.S. side of the border. Minutes before Border Patrol officials opened the gate to Mexico, Veronica Escobar, the Democratic nominee for El Paso’s congressional district, stood in front of the wall and called it a symbol of the country’s moral rock bottom.
“This experience today in this moment is beautiful and it’s tragic,” Escobar said. “Let it serve as a symbol of what we are fighting for as a border community and the values that we should be fighting for as a nation—to keep families together.”
By 10 a.m. on Saturday, around 3,000 people had arrived, eager to see their loved ones. Between the intermittent blaring of passing trains, the organizers played Los Tigres Del Norte’s song “América” on repeat. As families collected the blue shirts that signaled they were U.S. participants, the recording of the norteño singers would begin again: “Haber nacido en América, es como una bendición,” “To be born in America is like a blessing.”
Castillo had registered for the event back in August and started making preparations to take his children, his brother, and his niece 1,500 miles from their home in Chicago to the Texas border. A few days before the event, they flew into Dallas before driving nine hours to El Paso. In Mexico, he paid for his relatives to take a ten-hour bus ride from their small town La Partida in Coahuila. All in all, the three minutes cost him nearly $1,000.
His family was number 19 of almost 250. When they arrived at Sunland Park at 9 a.m., they grabbed their blue shirts and filed into their places in line, trying to spot their relatives on the other side. At their turn, they walked through the opening in the fence and lined up on either side of yellow caution tape that delineated the U.S. border. Across from him was his grandmother Olga, his uncles Juan and Victor, his aunt Nancy, and his cousin Alejandra. Once the air horn signaled the start of their time, they didn’t waste a single second before each of them leaned across the tape for hugs. Castillo whipped out his GoPro camera and his aunts and uncles took out their cellphones to take photos with their nephews and nieces for the first time. On either side of them, families did the same, almost all of them with tears in their eyes.
It was only 180 seconds. For Castillo, that time was caught somewhere between an eternity and an instant. He’d spent fifteen years waiting for this moment, and when it finally came, he was nearly speechless.
“I was shaking,” Castillo said. “From the second I saw them, I started tearing up. I forgot everything I was going to say. I almost said nothing. I just hugged them and let myself feel it. I just told them how much I missed them and how much I loved them.”
When he left Mexico, Castillo was a child. Fifteen years later, he was a father of two, introducing his family to Victor and Victoria. They spoke regularly over the phone, but because his family in Mexico lives in a small town with little to no electricity, the calls only take place one or two times a month. It’s a different version of keeping in touch than the one Castillo grew up with, where he’d spend each day before and after school with his grandparents.
“It was a really beautiful experience just getting to hold my grandmother again after fourteen, fifteen years,” Castillo said. “To hold her, to feel her—it’s not the same over the phone. It’s almost impossible to explain how it felt.”
While in El Paso, Castillo showed his kids the town he knew growing up, walking past the dollar stores where he’d eagerly spend his pocket money on toys or junk food. The night before the reunion, they stared up together at the star on the mountain. As a kid, he developed a fondness for sitting along the border. To him, the walls and fences were an incomprehensible construct—billion-dollar pieces of steel that tried to keep him away from his family.
“It’s a shameful wall,” Castillo said. “There are so many other problems in our country that we should be spending money on. To me, it’s not necessary. It still didn’t keep us apart. Even if it was just for three minutes, it still couldn’t keep us separated.”