Standing atop a makeshift platform in the middle of the Rio Grande, Armando Rodriguez held his 6-year-old daughter tightly on a warm morning last month.

This was the first time he had embraced his daughter since the girl was a year old. Immigration policies kept them away from each other, though they are only separated by a river. 

His daughter, sister and former partner live in Juárez, while he resides a few miles away in El Paso and has no way to routinely see his family face-to-face.

The Border Network for Human Rights held its 10th annual Hugs Not Walls event on May 6, clearing the way for 200 families to reunite in the river. The bi-annual event’s next iteration is expected to happen this fall, with preparations for the event starting as soon as July.

As Hugs Not Walls took place, U.S. Border Patrol officers sat on the sidelines on a promise not to intervene. Coordinating the event is a logistical feat that involves working with the international boundary and water commissions on both sides of the border, in addition to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and local police.

“I’m thrilled that I’m here for this event,” Rodriguez said in Spanish. “Not only for myself but for all the other people here. This is a great program to see your family, even if it’s just for a few minutes.”

A woman from Mexico cries as she hugs a family member, in yellow, who lives in the United States where the border has made it impossible for them to visit each other face to face. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Hugs Not Walls, which started in 2016 during Barack Obama’s presidency, allowed BNHR to have families meet in the middle of the Rio Grande to reunite without fear of deportation or any other repercussions, thanks to a deal with CBP achieved through more than 20 years of dialogue.

“It’s a relationship of pressure in dialogue, but it’s very tense,” BNHR Executive Director Fernando Garcia said. 

Extensive support from the community — with close to 1,000 families as members — allows the 25-year-old organization to create leaders that educate, organize and mobilize communities on the border to hold CBP accountable.

“Carrying thousands of people coming to the border entails that they will need to have these assurances that the Border Patrol is not going to intervene,” Garcia said. 

A CBP spokesperson said their organization offered security at the border, but BNHR handled the rest of the logistics for the event.

Volunteers from Border Network for Human Rights help participants in the Hugs Not Walls event make their way down a ramp to a temporary platform in the Rio Grande where they will meet with family members from the other side of the border. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

During the event, makeshift platforms erected in the middle of the Rio Grande allow families wearing distinctive color t-shirts — yellow for those on the U.S. side or blue for those in Mexico — to meet in the middle of the body of water to embrace before going their separate ways.

The families meet for about six minutes. Garcia said the time might seem short, but due to time constraints and the number of families participating, it allows all families to see their loved ones.

“We have just half a day to do it,” he said. “Sometimes it’s difficult because we have to tell the families to separate … so it’s a very emotional event.”

It takes about three months to prepare and coordinate with the appropriate authorities. About 45 days before, families begin registration.

“It takes a lot of time,” Garcia said. “But the most important is that we are working with these agencies and organizations to ensure that the families will participate without the fear of immigration enforcement. The reason why families cannot go back to Mexico to visit their family members is because they might have some kind of undefined legal status.”

Once registration is closed, the families are informed about the procedure and rules of engagement.

No state or federal grants are available to aid BNHR in their efforts to put on the event, which comes with a price tag of about $10,000. Funding comes from fundraising and loans the organization takes.

The event serves not only as a way for broken-up families to connect but also to protest immigration policies.

“There are a lot of families being displaced or separated by the deportation practice by immigration law in the United States,” Garcia said. “Nobody was talking about the real impact within our family unit. We were experiencing it every day.”

Operation Lone Star

Coordinating Hugs Not Walls has been easier some years than others. BNHR efforts had become harder to achieve ever since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent the Texas National Guard to the area as part of Operation Lone Star, turning the border into what Garcia called a heavily militarized zone.

The May 6 event had to change location last minute as disruptions made the original site inaccessible due to the actions of the state’s government ahead of the end of Title 42 on May 11 when droves of migrants crossing were expected.

“Suddenly, we start seeing the Texas National Guard setting up camp there and also putting barbed wire along the riverbank,” Garcia said, “essentially curtailing any possibilities of using that area.”

With the cooperation of the International Water and Boundary Commission and the Border Patrol, the event proceeded when a new area without the guard’s presence. The location was kept under wraps until a few days prior to the event.

Not all agencies were cooperative, organizers say. Texas government officials and officers “were always in our way,” Garcia said.  “They never helped. We tried to reach out to them through a number of contacts, but I think the response that we had is that they were just simply not interested.”

The lack of engagement from the state, Garcia believes, comes from Abbot’s highly politicized governorship that tends to overreach when it comes to migrants.

“We essentially disagree that (the state government) had to do anything at the border because that is not their responsibility,” Garcia said. “That is the federal government’s responsibility. I think the state right now is running an anti-immigrant agenda. I think they were not very glad that we’re doing this.”

Representatives from the Press Office of Greg Abbott did not respond to questions about the event.

Future events

The bi-annual event, Garcia said, will continue so long as families are being hurt by separation.

“For us, it’s a moral imperative and a political imperative to say that we need to continue doing it until one day families don’t have to be forcefully separated like that,” he said.

Expansion into the Texas Valley is in the works for member families.

“As far as they continue separating families unjustly, we’re going to try to continue to do this event as much as we can,” Garcia said. “This is an event that brings out the humanity of people. This is about families and people. This is not about criminals and rapists, as some of the narratives out there are painting for our families.”

El Paso Matters photographer Corrie Boudreaux contributed to this story.

This story was co-published with Next City as part of our joint Equitable Cities Reporting Fellowship For Borderland Narratives.

Christian Betancourt is an urban affairs reporter at El Paso Matters and Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow for Borderland Narratives with Next City. Betancourt has been a local news reporter since 2012,...