SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A new program started in Mexico that is helping people living in the U.S. without legal documentation who cannot travel back home to see their families. Ashley Lopez, with member station KUT in Austin, reports.
ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: This is the moment Rosa Barriga Barriga saw her sister and her adult children for the first time in a really long time.
ROSA BARRIGA BARRIGA: (Speaking Spanish).
LOPEZ: “My daughter, my sister," she says. The moderator of the event then asked, how long has it been since you've seen each other? Barriga's sister told her 24 years. Then Barriga turned to her children, who she also hadn't seen in more than two decades.
BARRIGA: (Speaking Spanish).
LOPEZ: "My daughter," she sobs. More than 30 families were reunited recently in a church in Round Rock, Texas, just outside of Austin. This was done through a program called Palomas Mensajeras, which roughly translates to carrier pigeons in English. It was created by the government of the state of Michoacan last year. It allows some of their aging citizens a chance to see their children who are living in the U.S.
CARLOS GONZALEZ GUTIERREZ: The common denominator is that all the relatives here are undocumented.
LOPEZ: That's Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez. He's the consul general of Mexico in Austin and helped put this event together.
GUTIERREZ: So they cannot go back and forth. They come here. And once they are in the U.S., it's so expensive and so dangerous to cross the border that they have to stay in the U.S.
LOPEZ: Gutierrez says there's a lot of other immigrants living in the U.S. without documentation, who will likely never see their family they left behind again.
GUTIERREZ: This is the real cost of immigration. People sometimes don't see it, but the human cost behind each family that is separated is the highest cost that a person pays for migrating to another country.
LOPEZ: Gutierrez says in order for parents living in Mexico to qualify for this program, they have to be more than 60 years old and have a clean criminal record. Gutierrez says family members in the U.S. pay for the travel costs and visa paperwork fees. And in the end, their parents get a standard 10-year tourist visa, which allows them to visit their family for six months at a time every year. It's tourism, not immigration. The program is designed to ensure that the parents return home at the end of each visit.
GUTIERREZ: Through this system, they allow for a more natural, more normal, more constant, more fluid way of meeting each other in the U.S.
LOPEZ: Before this program, Rosa Barriga's 17-year-old niece, Andrea Orozco, was the only family member in the U.S. who was able to visit her aunt in Mexico. That's because she was born in the U.S. and is a legal citizen. Orozco says it's been difficult knowing her mother can't come with her.
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ANDREA OROZCO: It's very hard. I've seen times where our family over there is like suffering or something is happening, and my mom - she can't really do anything about it. She's just sitting there hoping for the best. She prays for them and all. She just hopes that everyone is doing OK.
LOPEZ: It's also been tough for two of Barriga's children living in the U.S. While she sat waiting to see her mother, Maria could barely talk about how she felt.
MARIA: (Speaking Spanish).
LOPEZ: "There's a lot of mixed feelings," she says. Maria says she's happy to finally see her mother, but she's also sad about all the time that's gone by. Consul General Gutierrez says he also has mixed feelings because these reunions are happening amidst the backdrop of an immigration crackdown in this country. He says he can tell families are anxious.
GUTIERREZ: They know that climate has changed significantly and that these type of opportunities are going to be very, very rare.
LOPEZ: Since 2017, almost 4,000 Mexican parents have traveled to the U.S. through this program. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.