SUNLAND PARK, N.M. — Hundreds of families and border residents separated by the U.S.-Mexico border gathered Monday at a chain-link fence separating the countries for a binational protest targeting U.S. immigration policy.
Mothers sobbed, sisters exchanged laughs and children swapped candy through the fence during an event organized by immigrant rights activists to illustrate how the border and immigration policy divides families. The event, timed to coincide with Pope Francis’ visit to Mexico, drew about 50 people on the Mexican side and an estimated 250 on the U.S. side.
The Vatican has said that the pope’s journey through Mexico, which takes him from the southern state of Chiapas to the northern border with Texas, symbolically traces the route of migrants trying to reach the United States. On Wednesday he will celebrate an outdoor Mass in nearby Ciudad Juarez, opposite its northern sister city of El Paso.
Monday’s hourlong event gave families who are unable to travel to Juarez for the papal visit a chance to symbolically deliver a letter to the pontiff. They read their letter aloud in English and in Spanish.
“We welcome you to a border where hundreds of migrants die trying to reach the American Dream,” said Gabriela Castaneda, an organizer with Border Network for Human Rights, which hosted the event. “We ask for you to lift the spirit of immigrants. Many of us are forced to flee our country because of violence.”
The protest was held near where Texas, New Mexico and Mexico meet. Sunland Park is a small New Mexico city opposite Anapra, a suburb of Juarez, in Mexico’s Chihuahua state.
Some protesters _ including several women who are in the U.S. illegally _ gave testimony just steps from the fence and Border Patrol officials inside their vehicles.
Maria Ceniseros Galvan, a 59-year-old grandmother who lives in Las Cruces, N.M., without legal status, spoke to the crowd about her family on both sides of the international boundary. “I don’t think it’s just to have to see my grandchildren from across the border wall,” she said.
Along with a time for protest, it also was a time for introductions.
“This is your cousin Charlie!” said one woman in Spanish to two boys at the fence.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” one girl asked another.
The gravel lot is also the site of an annual gathering at which families on both sides of the border meet. Martha Rangel, 42, a homemaker in Juarez, comes every year to see her mother and other relatives in this dusty trash-strewn lot.
“We touch hands, but it is like being in jail,” she said of the annual meetings. “We can’t go there and they can’t come here. But it’s worth it because we get to see them.”