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Separated Families Meet In The Middle Of The Rio Grande During 'Hugs Not Walls' Event

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Over the weekend, there was a celebration of sorts on the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso. Some 200 families separated by their legal status reunited in the middle of the Rio Grande. It's an annual event called Hugs Not Walls. Organizers coordinate with immigration officials to create a space where families can briefly reconnect without fear of immigration enforcement. KERA's Mallory Falk was there.

MALLORY FALK, BYLINE: It's early Saturday morning, and families dressed in bright blue T-shirts assemble on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. Their relatives are just a few yards away, dressed in white, divided by ankle-deep water and the border wall.

FERNANDO RAMIREZ: So this is really something special for me. I mean...

FALK: That's Fernando Ramirez. He's 47 and works as a medical administrative assistant in El Paso. He hasn't seen his big sister Maria since 2009, when she was deported to Juarez.

RAMIREZ: We call each other on the phone. I mean, but it's - I mean, we can - we video chat also. But it's not the same. It's always not the same. It's not when you have her in person where you can actually touch her and, you know, hug her and stuff.

FALK: This year's the first time Fernando heard about Hugs Not Walls, and he rushed to sign up. Now, joined by his wife and two young sons, he peeks through the rust-colored slats that make up the border wall, trying to catch a glimpse of Maria on the other side.

RAMIREZ: I can't wait for them to call us so I can see her.

FALK: The organizers, El Paso nonprofit Border Network for Human Rights, say Hugs Not Walls is more than just a chance for families like this to reunite. It's also an act of protest against the policies keeping families apart. It's also a highly visual and emotionally charged scene. The joy of reuniting and the pain of forced separation are on full display.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: It's finally Fernando's turn, and his family walks down the concrete bank of the river and onto a wooden platform. Maria approaches from the other side. Tears stream down their faces as they wrap each other in a tight hug.

DERRICK: My dad's crying right now.

FALK: Six-year-old Derrick looks on for a moment, then suddenly realizes what's happening.

DERRICK: Wait. Is that your sister?

FALK: This is the first time Derrick’s ever met his tia. She pulls down her mask to give him a kiss.

RAMIREZ: This is my sister. I haven't seen her for, like I said, almost 12 years. Very happy now, very joyful - I mean, even though it's for a few minutes, but I'm very happy to see her.

FALK: For Maria, it's overwhelming.

MARIA: I feel so sad (crying).

FALK: The separation's been hard. Her whole family's in El Paso, and she's by herself in Mexico. After three minutes, an announcement booms over the loudspeaker.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

FALK: It's time for the next round of families. Maria and Fernando walk back across the river to opposite sides of the border.

For NPR News, I'm Mallory Falk in El Paso.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK AND SUBLAB'S "ISOLATED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.