Mexico City – Until the mid-1990s, there was barely a fence separating the US and Mexico on the beach in Tijuana. People could stroll freely along the shore, into California and back again.
Today, with immigration and border security at the forefront of the political conversation, a six-metre-high, triple-layer steel barrier crowned by security cameras divides the two countries. The wall cuts across the beach in Tijuana, extending 100 metres into the ocean.
For a few hours every Sunday, people on both sides of the border are allowed to interact through the fence, under the watchful eyes of US Border Patrol guards, at the spot known as Friendship Park, dedicated in 1971 by First Lady Pat Nixon.
The only form of physical contact that is allowed is the touching of fingers through the wire mesh, known as the “Pinky Kiss”.
Such restrictions only increase the frustration and sadness of the people who gather there.
Most of those who come to Friendship Park are families and friends who have been separated by the border. Many on the Mexican side have been deported, while others simply come to visit migrant relatives who they cannot legally visit because of lack of papers.
The park has also become a meeting place for deported mothers who come to spend a few precious hours with their children, many of whom are undocumented in the US and therefore cannot leave the country.
“It makes me feel like an animal in a cage. All we want is to be able to hug our families. I haven’t held my daughter in my arms for five years,” says Yolanda Varona, a deported mother and co-founder of the Dreamer Moms support group, whose journey we follow in my film. “She doesn’t come to the fence because she feels like she is visiting me in prison.”
In April 2015, Yolanda and the Dreamer Moms, working with other migrant groups such as Border Angels and with support from Tijuana City Council, managed to persuade the US authorities to open the emergency door of the fence at Friendship Park so that deported parents could hug their families for Children’s Day. Five families were each allowed a two-minute reunion. The door was opened again this April. It was a huge achievement for the group, but the mothers want more. Together with community group Friends of Friendship Park, they recently started a campaign called Let Them Hug, to demand that the door be opened every weekend so that all families get a chance to hug.
I first heard about Yolanda and the Dreamer Moms when I saw a television report about the door opening. It was a powerful scene: the big graffitied steel door creaking open – an emotional child on one side, an overjoyed parent on the other.
There on television was Yolanda, wearing her bright pink Dreamer Moms T-shirt, hugging her granddaughter Frida. It had been five years since they’d last held each other.
You hear a lot about immigration and deportation in the news, but this was the first time it hit me that mothers get deported too. What happens to a mother when she gets deported? What happens to her children? These were the questions I was asking when I started making this film.
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Yolanda lived in California for 17 years. As a single mother, she worked hard to support her family, eventually becoming the manager of a fast food restaurant. She paid her taxes and raised two good children. She was a model US citizen, except that she did not have the right papers.
On New Year’s Eve in 2010, in what she suspects was part of a wave of deportation of women at the time, Yolanda was detained and deported for working on a tourist visa.
“I remember when I emerged from the tunnel in Tijuana,” she says, “I was in a state of semi-madness. I couldn’t digest what had happened. I stayed next to the border and just started walking round and round in circles.
“I worried about a million different things: I still had the key to the safe at work – who would cover my shift the next day? Who would make my kids breakfast?”
From one day to the next, her life was torn apart: Yolanda was banned from returning to the US for life.
Her children, Alberto, who is 30, and Paulina, 19, have their papers in order and can stay in the US.
Yolanda decided to stay in Tijuana because it’s the closest she can be to them.
“I was depressed for a long time,” she says in the film, “but one day I woke up and thought, I have to do something.”
So she started looking for other deported mothers in Tijuana. Friendship Park, where seperated families gather, was the natural place to start. She soon discovered that there were many other women with similar stories. In May 2014, Dreamer Moms was founded with about 30 women.
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There are 11 million undocumented people living in the US, and the spectre of deportation hangs over every one of them.
In 2010, talk among migrant advocacy groups was that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had begun implementing a new policy actively targeting women for deportation, although this has never been confirmed or denied by the US authorities. A similar series of raids, reported by Reuters, occurred in the first half of 2016, when ICE launched a 30-day wave of arrests, targeting Central American mothers and children.
Alicia Frausto, one of the early members of the Dreamer Moms group, believes she was caught in the 2010 crackdown.
“It was strange. I went to settle a traffic violation and they took me into custody, saying I would be held in a detention centre for five days. I thought, for a traffic violation? They never mentioned anything about immigration,” she says. “Then suddenly ICE appeared and said they would be deporting me to Mexico.”
Alicia had lived in California for more than 30 years and both her children are US citizens. She was deported on July 4, 2010, Independence Day.
READ MORE: Alicia and her son Edsson’s story
Allegedly, targeting women was “two-birds-with-one-stone” logic: if mothers were deported, their children would automatically follow. But as I discovered when I started making this film, this was rarely the case.
If the children are very young, and happen to be with the mother at the moment of the arrest, then the mothers would normally take them out of the country. Often, however, when an undocumented person is detained, their basic rights are rarely respected and usually they are neither allowed to contact anyone nor collect their children or any belongings, before being taken to the border.
In some cases, mothers make the ultimate sacrifice and decide to leave their children behind with family members in the hope of giving them the best opportunity for a good life in the US. Some end up in foster care, where some have been sexually abused, as Susana Vasquez, a deported mother, explains in the film.
If the children are adults, they invariably choose to stay in the US, the country they grew up in. Alicia’s son Edsson, for example, had just started studying at university, and despite his love for his mother, was not about to follow her to Mexico, a country that was alien to him. By deporting mothers, it felt as though the US was separating families, who loved the US and felt like American citizens, but simply didn’t have the papers to prove it. Ultimately, as I saw in Friendship Park, mothers, fathers and children were suffering.
While their parents, having entered illegally, struggle to attain legal residency status, the children of undocumented immigrants born in the US automatically become US citizens. So it begs the question: How could the US government be deporting the parents of US citizens?
As Emma Sanchez, a Dreamer Mom featured in this film whose husband and three children are US citizens, angrily asks: “Don’t my children have the right as US citizens to be with their mother?”
It’s a large grey area in US immigration law – a black hole that many women have fallen into.
President Obama had tried to find a solution with an executive order – called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans – giving amnesty to children who arrived undocumented and to parents of US citizens, a total of five million people. But both initiatives were shut down by the Supreme Court in June 2016.
Millions of undocumented immigrants wait with bated breath to find out what the next president’s line will be on immigration.
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For a time, Yolanda felt that she would never be able to legally return to California. Banned for life, she thought she had no options. She was ready to risk everything and cross the desert to enter the US illegally.
“But in the back of my mind, I knew I had to find a legal way of returning,” she says, “or I would just allow history to repeat itself and put myself and my family through the same misery again.”
Finding legal solutions is at the core of the Dreamer Moms’ work, and when Yolanda started educating herself about immigration law and talking to lawyers, she discovered a glimmer of hope in the form of the U visa, which provides a path to residency for victims of serious crimes.
She had suffered domestic violence in the US, and, fortunately, she had filed police reports – a crucial requisite for applying for the U visa. Only 10,000 are given out each year, and there is a long waiting list, but the U visa is one of the few realistic options deported mothers have to try and return to the US.
At the time of writing, Yolanda had received certification from the district attorney and begun the process of applying for the U visa.
Emma Sanchez, who was deported in June 2006, was banned from returning to the US for 10 years. After a decade of waiting, she began her application process in June this year and is waiting on a consular appointment.
Alicia Frausto’s case was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) because she qualified for an appeal against her deportation as it was deemed that she had submitted herself to voluntary deportation. In mid-2016 she won her appeal, and on October 27, in what Yolanda calls the “miracle of the ACLU”, Alicia crossed the border and became the first Dreamer Mom to return to the US legally and rejoin her family.
There is surely no greater pain than that of a mother being separated against her will from her children. This pain was what united all the deported mothers I met in Tijuana. But, as Yolanda says, “it is the love for our children that drives us on.”
Thanks to her tireless work as leader of the Dreamer Moms, Yolanda has managed to open not only a door in the border fence, but also a legal window for deported parents to be able to return to the US and reunite with their children.
From the Witness documentary Dreamer Moms. Watch the full film here.