“My daughter, my sister!” Rosa Barriga Barriga yelled through tears in Spanish.
Barriga, who had flown to Texas from Michoacán state in Mexico, hadn't seen her sister and two of her children in roughly 24 years. They hugged in the middle of a pavilion at St. William Catholic Church in Round Rock on Friday.
“I don’t recognize you anymore,” Barriga said as she turned to her son, who was holding a child of his own.
The family and dozens of others were reunited as part of the "Palomas Mensajeras" (homing pigeon) program. This event – the first of its kind in the Austin area – was put together through the efforts of the Consulate General of Mexico in Austin and the government of the State of Michoacán.
“They chose Round Rock because there is a significant community from Tzintzuntzan here, and this was a very important concentration of people from Michoacán,” said Carlos González Gutiérrez, the consul general of Mexico in Austin.
To qualify for the program, he said, parents in Mexico must be older than 60 and have a clean record. They also need to prove they have children living in the U.S.
At the end of the screening process, the parents receive a tourist visa that lasts 10 years, allowing them to travel to the U.S. for six months at a time.
“Through this system they allow for a more natural, more normal, more constant, more fluid way of meeting each other in the U.S.,” Gutiérrez said.
The families living in and around Round Rock pay the full costs. While visas and travel can be pretty pricey, the alternative is much harder. Without the program, Gutiérrez said, many of these people would not be able to see their aging parents.
“The common denominator is that all the relatives here are undocumented,” he said. “So, they cannot go back and forth. They come here and once they are in the U.S., it is so expensive and so dangerous to cross the border that they have to stay in the U.S.”
And Gutiérrez said staying put in the U.S. comes with a significant cost.
Barriga’s 17-year-old niece, Andrea Orozco, is the only member of her family in the U.S. who has been able to visit her in the past few years.
Andrea, who was born in the U.S., has no problem traveling in and out of the country. While she sat with her family waiting to see her aunt Friday, she said it has been difficult watching her mother miss her sister and other siblings.
“It’s very hard,” she said. “I’ve seen times where our family over there is 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.”
Andrea said it has also been hard on Barriga’s children, who are adults now.
Maria, one of Barriga's eight children, could barely talk about how she felt.
“There’s a lot of mixed feelings,” she said in Spanish.
She said she was happy to finally see her mother, but that it was also sad to think about all the time that’s gone by without her being there.
That’s why Gutiérrez said this program was created – to address a problem facing a lot of Mexican nationals who move to the U.S. without documentation.
“This is the real cost of immigration,” Gutiérrez said. “Sometimes people 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. It shows that migrants leave their country not willingly, but as a result of the need.”
Gutiérrez said these reunions are particularly special with the backdrop of family separations at the border earlier this summer. The anxiety among the families is palpable, he said.
“They know that the climate has changed significantly and that these types of opportunities are going to be very, very rare,” he said.