Jannet Castañon walks up to the large, rusted gate on the metal fence looming up into the sky at Friendship Park. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently made a campaign stop here.
Since 1971, the park has served as a small gathering space that separates Mexico from the U.S. with a wall that stretches into the ocean. Separated by thick metal and wire fencing, people have gathered here to talk to friends, loved ones and even strangers from across country lines. On this day, Castañon’s mother, Rosario Vargas, is waiting for her on the other side.
“It’s been nine years,” says Castañon. “Of not hugging her, not seeing her. Nothing.”
It takes three U.S. Border Patrol agents to unlock the gate and pry open its salt-eroded door. Holding her 10-year-old daughter Yvette’s hand, Castañon walks nervously across the dirt and rocks leading up to the border fence, stumbling a bit on her way to meet her mother. Each step is watched by hundreds of eyes from both sides of the border, and is recorded by nonstop camera shutter clicks and video cameras so that this moment can be shared with the world.
Castañon wraps her arms tightly around her mother. Their feet straddle the line dividing the U.S and Mexico. While there’s no distance between them on this day, the true measure of their separation is immeasurable and ever imposing by the line below them and fence surrounding them. Both women break into small sobs muffled by each other’s bodies. They embrace for three minutes as tears fall from their faces. Before they know it, it’s time to say goodbye again.
Still, in those three minutes, Castañon later says she experienced the best moment of her life.
“I felt excited, happy, content, everything,” says Castañon, who nine years prior decided to leave her hometown of Tijuana for San Diego to give her children what she believes is a better future. In doing so, she also left her mother. Neither Castañon nor Vargas can cross the border for a visit without risking deportation.
Their moment at Friendship Park, while fleeting, was arranged by Border Angels, a local nonprofit advocating for immigration reform and who hold monthly events at the park. In celebration of the Mexican holiday Dia del Niño, or Children’s Day, Border Angels arranged a celebration they call “Abriendo la Puerta de la Esperanza” (Opening the Door of Hope).
As part of the third annual event, Border Angels chooses a small number of families who have been separated from their loved ones for various reasons, including deportation, and gives them the opportunity to hold each other for a few minutes. The Border Patrol assists by opening the gate in the fence wall. This year, six families received three minutes each to reconnect with their loved ones.
Enrique Morones, executive director and founder of Border Angels, believes this event is especially important today as the political climate has become increasingly intolerant of Mexican immigrants, both undocumented and otherwise.
“While some people want to build more walls, Border Angels wants to open more doors,” Morones says. “This event is huge, as it shows the world and Congress in D.C. the need for human touch; the need for humane immigration reform. Love has no borders.”
Rep. Juan Vargas, representing California’s 51st District, was at the event to show support for these families and challenge what he calls the country’s “cruel, wrong and bad” immigration system.
“It breaks loving families apart that want to grow up together and do great things,” Vargas says. “I’m hoping that [lawmakers] get to the point of understanding that the way to fix it is to have comprehensive immigration reform that allows families to be together as opposed to what Trump is preaching—a philosophy of hate by breaking families apart and building walls instead of bridges.”
Morones believes that putting human faces to this issue can make all the difference when it comes time to pass laws.
“That one deciding vote [in Congress] may look back at a moment of a child hugging their mom or grandmom, and it might sway them to vote in favor of humane immigration reform,” he says.
The event isn’t only a chance for those chosen families to be close to their loved ones, again. A caravan of about 30 cars makes its way up a muddy road to Friendship Park. Dozens gather at the celebration with toys and cupcakes for the kids, and talk to loved ones through the small separations between the fence grating, sticking their finger through so they can touch. Hundreds meet them on the Tijuana side, some from thousands of miles away.
Among them are Daisy, Leti and Paola Toledo and their parents, Manuel and Leticia Toledo, who they haven’t seen in two years. Manuel was extradited three years ago and Leticia decided to follow behind to care for him since he was ill at the time of his extradition. They left their daughters, who are 25 and younger and undocumented, under the care of family.
“We’ve had some rough times,” says Daisy.
“Having to be on our own and support ourselves,” adds Leti. “Having to work together and help each other out, we kind of got used to it after a while.”
The event gives them an opportunity to see their parents until they can sort out paperwork that would allow them to cross into Tijuana or their parents to return to the U.S.
“It makes me so happy to see my daughters,” adds a tearful Leticia from the Tijuana side of the fence. “To have them here and to be able to see them. I wish I could hug them, but just being able to see them makes me happy.”
The Toledos, Castañons and hundreds of thousands of other families separated from each other wait until a better immigration system can bring them together. In the meantime, they’ll take anything they can get. Even three minutes.