Through a Mexican program, dozens of men and women 60 and older are reunited with loved ones living in the United States illegally whom they have not been able to see for at least 10 years. Nick Oza/

TUCSON — Elia Vasquez held a bouquet of pink roses in one hand, as she hugged her mother, Anastacia Orduña Martinez, with her other arm.

Within a few seconds, Vasquez passed the flowers to another family member so she could fully embrace her mother, as tears rolled down their cheeks.

It had been almost 12 years since they had seen each other. 

All around them on this June day at Our Lady of Fatima parish, similar reunions — 32 in all — were taking place. Some people hadn’t seen each other in decades. Sobs and cries of joy drowned out the Mariachi music that played to welcome long-absent loved ones.

The reunions, however, would be short-lived.

30 days to spend together

Under a program organized by the Mexican state of Guanajuato, men and women over the age of 60 had been granted visas to reunite with loved ones in the United States for 30 days.

For many it would likely be the last time they would see their family members. 

Similar programs have facilitated reunions since 2012. But with President Donald Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration and his hostile rhetoric toward Mexico, organizers are concerned such programs might change or even go away.

So far, there hasn’t been any indications of a change.

“We believe this program is fundamental, and it’s the most noble program we have,” said Susana Guerra Vallejo, head of the state government office that helped coordinate the visit from Mexico.

“We really hope there won’t be any modifications on behalf of American authorities to cancel this program. We’ve done it by the book,” she said.

32 of 100 visa applications approved 

Some of the relatives who were reunited that day had gone 25 years without seeing each other.

The reason is a combination of economics back home in Mexico, and immigration status in the U.S.

“With current salaries it’s impossible for a father or mother (in Mexico) to sustain five family members, so what does the eldest son do? They come to the U.S. to help the family live a better life,” said Angel Pacheco, who leads a Tucson community group of migrants who hail from the state of Guanajuato.

But once here, it’s also impossible to legally travel to Mexico and return to the U.S. “Since they’re here illegally, they can’t go back to their places of origin,” he said.


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Pacheco’s organization helped facilitate the visitors’ arrival from Mexico.

Planning for the Tucson reunion began almost a year in advance. 

Organizers said they initially submitted 100 visa applications to U.S. consular authorities in Mexico, but only 32 were approved, and most of them were for women.

“Unfortunately the majority of the men had already crossed the border, they had been deported, … they had them on record. So when they went to apply they were automatically denied a visa,” Pacheco said. 

Although the state facilitated the visa application process, the families in Tucson were responsible for paying for travel and other costs to bring their family members from Mexico.

States’ emigration rates

Ten Mexican states have family reunification programs for their citizens and diaspora in the U.S.

Those states, according to the Mexican government, have some of the highest rates of emigration from Mexico; the vast majority immigrate to the United States. 

The top three states account for nearly one-third of the 12 million Mexican-born population living in the United States. Guanajuato is second on the list.

In 2012, the government for the state of Zacatecas pioneered the program that became the model for other states. One-third of the people born in that state now live in the U.S., and many who lived in the country illegally had no way of going back to their birthplace without the risk of being unable to get back into the country they now called home.

“While … we may not get immigration reform for all of our brothers without status, we’ve always said if we can help at least one family, then it’s worth it,” Jose Juan Estrada Hernandez, who leads the Zacatecas Migrants’ Department, said of the program that’s been imitated by other states.

That state’s program has reunited nearly 2,000 families since 2012. 

Concerns over possible policy changes 

This year’s reunions were shadowed by concerns over how the program will fare with Trump in the White House.

“We’re all uncertain about what will happen,” Estrada Hernandez said. “What new executive order he’ll propose? What anti-immigrant laws the states will pass? What will the mood be? We’re all waiting with uncertainty.” 

The Zacatecas program has organized 17 reunions so far this year across the U.S.

But this year, he said program organizers are taking extra care to make sure they follow the rules U.S. consular authorities have in place to grant the visas. That includes not taking anyone younger than 60, and ensuring they stay only for the length of time their visa allows.

“The fear is there, of course it’s there,” he said. “Many things in the U.S. depend on the president, on an executive order, for example. However, we have faith that it won’t happen.”

Still, at least two Mexican states launched reunification programs this year even as another has made significant changes, and did away with the large-scale events like the one in Tucson, opting instead for one-on-one assistance to families.

Speaking to Mexican media, the director of the program in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi said they wouldn’t end the program but would stop promoting it, out of fear it could lead to more deportations.

“We’ll continue supporting these elderly adults so they can reunite with their families in the United States,” Enrique Malacara Martinez told media. “But we’re analyzing the risks. Because you get a special permit from immigration (authorities), but you have to give personal information, where they live, where they work, etc. … And we want to keep this program from becoming another tool for deportations.”

Making up for lost time

Vasquez tried to make the most of the short time she had with her mother.

She and her two sisters met often to make dinner and took their mother to explore the city they now called home.

“We always really wanted to take her shopping,” Vasquez said. “Normally we’d send her clothes, shoes, but a lot of times they wouldn’t fit her. So we’d say that when she came we’d take her shopping.”

But their happiness would sometimes give way to a deep sadness.

Vasquez had applied for her father to visit her in Tucson as well. But he unexpectedly passed away in March. Because of Vasquez’s immigration status, she was unable to attend his funeral in Mexico. 

“She’s still very sad about it,” Vasquez said of her mother. “To be honest we didn’t talk much about it because it’s still too recent.”

Her father’s death was a reminder of how quickly things can change and to not take for granted time with loved ones.

With that in mind, Vasquez cherished the 30 days she spent with her mother, knowing it could be the last time they see each other.

“We’re so thankful that she was able to come,” she said.

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