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‘My daughter. My grandchildren.


The State Department is allowing elderly Mexicans to visit their undocumented
children in the United States, reuniting families separated for years, even decades.

María Dominga Romero León, 68, sets aside her embroidery to cook lunch over a
fire in her village of Cheran, Mexico. Three of her six children are longtime
undocumented immigrants in the United States.

By Kevin Sieff-MAY 24, 2019

CHERAN, Mexico — María Dominga Romero León bent over a small black
suitcase and packed her things, one by one: A folder of photographs, a half-
finished blouse, a bag of wooden toys for the grandchildren she’d never met.

She sighed.

“They’re probably used to America by now,” she said.


Romero León, 68, hadn’t seen her daughter Guillermina in so long that she was
starting to lose track of the years. Had it been 15 or 20? She wasn’t sure. What she
knew was that Guillermina was an undocumented immigrant in a place called
Germantown in Illinois with three children of her own.
Two were U.S. citizens; one was a beneficiary of the federal program Deferred
Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Romero León knew that U.S. immigration laws made it impossible for her
daughter to come back to Cheran without jeopardizing the life she had built in the
United States, because she didn’t have papers to move back and forth across the
border.

That’s why Romero León was packing her bags. She had never been on an
airplane, or been to an airport, or seen an escalator — she’d never left her home
state of Michoacan. But now she was getting ready to fly to America.

Romero León waits as her daughter Angelina Sánchez, 47, irons handmade pillow
cases that are to be taken to the United Sates as gifts. Sánchez's granddaughter
Valeria Masias Fabian, 8, watches. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
The U.S. government — the same government from which Romero León’s
daughter was hiding — had surprised her with a tourist visa.

Officials in Michoacan call them Palomas Mensajeras (Messenger Pigeons.) They


are parents and grandparents in Mexico who have not seen their undocumented
children in the United States for years, even decades.

Since 2017, officials here have been working with the U.S. State Department to
reunite those families for three-week visits in cities and towns across the United
States.

For many here, it is an unlikely American olive branch amid the Trump
administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration. But it has been welcomed by
immigrant families grappling with a crisis that has rippled across both countries:
The elderly parents of the estimated 5 million undocumented Mexicans in the
United States are dying alone in Mexico while their children remain stuck on the
other side of the border.

Romero León cries


as she talks to nephew Dámaso Fabian, 62, about losing her husband last year and
traveling to the United States to see her daughter for the first time in 17 years.
(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Romero León’s husband died of complications from diabetes a year ago. During
his final days, she held a phone to his ear so their children could speak to him from
the United States. Three of the couple’s six children were undocumented
immigrants living across the border.
“It was hard for him,” Romero León said, “to be sick, to be dying so far away from
them.
“I thought, ‘Will it be the same for me?’ ”

Still, when she learned that she would be joining 21 other elderly residents from
around Cheran on a flight to Chicago, she found it hard to understand. Why had the
United States granted her a visa? Was it a trick to apprehend her daughter?

“That’s what I’m worried about,” she said. “Are they going to use this to arrest
them?”

Romero León
gathers dried corn. She's accompanied by great-grandson Angel Fabian Sánchez, 3.
(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Warnings
The U.S. government hasn’t specifically endorsed the program, a State Department
spokesman said in a statement. But officials last year began designating special
interview days at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City for elderly visa applicants who
“frequently travel in groups to the United States for a variety of reasons including
tourism, cultural programs, and to visit friends and family such as U.S. citizen
grandchildren.”

The spokesman made no mention of the generation between the Mexican


grandparents and the American grandchildren. But in practice, the Palomas
Mensajeras program is exclusively for elderly Michoacanos who live in Mexico
and have undocumented children in the United States.
Trump — of the border wall proposal, family separations and the national
emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border — has taken a different approach toward the
undocumented. “Please do not make yourselves too comfortable,” he tweeted this
month, “you will be leaving soon!”

[Their ancestors fled U.S. slavery for Mexico. Now they’re looking north again.]

The State Department spokesman declined to answer questions about why the
United States is facilitating reunions between Mexicans and their undocumented
children.

The department has been issuing 10-year, multiple-entry visas to Michoacanos age
60 and older who have not themselves been in the United States illegally. The
families pay for the visas and flights themselves.

[This school aims to keep young Guatemalans from migrating. They don’t know
it’s funded by the U.S. government.]

The program has sent more than 5,000 visitors to the United States in the past 30
months.
“We believe we have between 600,000 and 800,000 undocumented Michoacanos
living in the United States, and this program is for them,” said José Luis Gutiérrez,
the secretary of migration in Michoacan. “It’s a way for us to tell them they’re
important to us, that we appreciate the remittances and that we care.”

Gutiérrez said he met with the State Department several times leading up to the
program’s creation in 2017 and explained “the importance of what we were trying
to do.”

Not a single participant has overstayed a visa, he said.

Other Mexican states have started similar programs. In Zacatecas, it’s known as
“Heart of Silver.” In Puebla, it’s “Roots of Puebla.”

Organizers warn the undocumented children not to meet their parents at the airport,
where they might be asked for identification. Parents applying for visas are
encouraged to list the addresses of relatives or friends who are in the United States
legally, rather than provide contact information for their children illegally in the
country.
Romero León's
son-in-law Baltazar Ramírez, 26, uses a horse to get to the land where the family
grows corn. To his right is his son, also Baltazar, 12. (Sarah L. Voisin/The
Washington Post)

Romero León fed her horse, Zacapa, and her dog, Juanito. She collected corn to
sell at the local market. She tried to remember what the program’s organizers had
told her about what she could take to the United States.

She held the bag of wooden toys.

“Is this okay?” she asked.

“And this?” indicating a clump of thread.

“It’s so complicated.”

She sighed again, decided to pack only one change of clothes and zipped the black
bag shut.

She was still trying to make sense of the program, to figure out what she would do
with her three weeks in America.

“They say this is about reuniting families, that it’s safe for them even though they
don’t have papers. But I don’t know,” she said.
“I’ll tell her, ‘It’s time for you to move back.’ ”

A boy dressed as a
clown stands outside the Federico Hernández Tapia elementary school in Cheran.
(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
‘There was no work here’
Cheran, a town of 16,000 in the hills of central Mexico, is the ancestral home of
the Purépecha indigenous people. For centuries, it was an isolated dot in the state
of Michoacan where the native, pre-Hispanic language was more common than
Spanish.

Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, young men and women started leaving for the United
States — the beginning of a migration that would remake Cheran. The town lost
thousands of sons and daughters, but gained millions of dollars in remittances.
Suddenly it was connected to the outside world. Cherani clustered in Chicago, St.
Louis, Raleigh, N.C.

Guillermina Sánchez, Romero León’s daughter, left on New Year’s Day 2002,
carrying her six-month-old daughter and a tourist visa she planned to overstay.
They would reunite with Guillermina’s husband, Abdias, who had sneaked across
the border a few weeks earlier and was waiting in Chicago.

“They said it would be two years, and then they would be back,” Romero León
said.

“I’m not mad. I understand why they stayed. There was no work here. But, still,
it’s a long time.”

She took up her black bag and began walking to the center of town. The small
woman with long,
straight hair that she’d never once cut headed for the bus that would take the
Palomas away. There was about her a quiet grace that masked how nervous she
was.

Every few steps she was stopped by a friend or neighbor.

“I’m going to the United States,” she told one woman.

“I’ll tell everyone you said hello,” she promised another.

TOP: María Leonarda Pineda Joaquín, 68, of Cheranastico, Mexico, drags her
suitcases down the stairs at Chicago Midway International Airport because she is
afraid of the nearby escalators.

BOTTOM LEFT: Eutimio Jasinto Campos, 78, of Cheranastico, looks for his seat
on the airplane. He has not seen his son in the United States for 18 years.
BOTTOM RIGHT: Clockwise, from left, Romero León, María Yolanda Gutiérrez
Sánchez, 66, María Concepción Olivares Sánchez, 72, and María Celia Ziranda
Queriapa, 76, sleep on the bus after a long night of travel from Michoacan state in
Mexico to Illinois.

She climbed onto the bus and waved goodbye through the window. The trip
organizers are now experts in shepherding the elderly travelers through
international airports, translating between Spanish, English and Purépecha, holding
onto passports, reassuring nervous old men and women that the plane won’t crash.

It was late at night when Romero León and her 21 fellow pilgrims were guided
through customs and security at the Guadalajara airport and on into the terminal.

Airport workers looked at the group with curiosity.

Romero León spotted an escalator. She was bewildered.

“Is it a game?” she whispered.

One woman’s bag seemed about to burst.


“What did you pack?” Romero León asked.

“It’s mostly fish and cheese,” the woman said.

One man tried to imagine what it would be like to meet his grandchildren for the
first time.
“I’m not sure they will even be emotional,” he said, shrugging.

Romero León took her place on the plane and quietly said a little prayer. The plane
took off and she fell asleep, the bag of photos and toys in the overhead
compartment.

Watch María Dominga Romero León greet her daughter for the first time in 17
years

‘I’m not going to cry’


Guillermina Sánchez waited with Abdias and their children at St. John the Baptist
Catholic Church in Winfield, Ill., a few miles outside Chicago.

The bus carrying Romero León and the rest of the group would be arriving any
minute.

“Do you think we’ll even recognize her?” Chelsy Guardian, 18, Sánchez’s
daughter, asked her brother Oswaldo, 13.

“I think so,” he said, shrugging.

“I think it’s going to be a little awkward for a while,” Chelsy said.

When the bus pulled up to the church, she saw her grandmother through the
window.

“It was like seeing a mirage in the desert,” she said later.

Inside a church hall, dozens of children formed a receiving line. Chelsy held a
sign: “Bienvenidos Mama Minga.”

Pedro Tomás, one of the program’s organizers, wielded a microphone like a master
of ceremonies.
“These are families that haven’t seen each other for 15, 20 or 30 years,” he said.
“It’s been difficult for all of you. But now you can finally be together again.”

The elderly men and women entered the hall one at a time, each looking a little
confused and a little unsteady until their children and grandchildren came up and
embraced them in a shock of flowers and balloons.

“Mom!” a man in his 40s exclaimed, his arms open wide.

“I love you so much!” a little girl told her grandmother.

Romero León was one of the last to be introduced.

“I’m not going to cry,” she said. Then she walked into the room, standing up
straight.

Guillermina took her mother’s hand and pulled her close. Chelsy burst into tears
and threw her arms around her grandmother. Then Oswaldo, whose own tears
flowed down his face, hugged her, resting his head on her shoulder.

Guillermina thought: “My mother has become old.”

Romero León tried to remain in control of her own emotions. She didn’t want her
family to think she was fragile. And she worried that if she got too emotional, it
might make her sick.

But then she felt it, all at once. She covered her face with a scarf and wept.

“My daughter,” she said through tears. “My grandchildren.”


TOP: Romero León takes her first step onto an escalator at a shopping mall in
Fairview Heights, Ill. Her daughter Guillermina Sánchez, 38, helps. BOTTOM
LEFT: Chelsy Guardian, 18, tries on a top that her grandmother made for her a
couple of years ago. It is now too small, so Romero León plans to make her
another one. BOTTOM RIGHT: Romero León tries on clothes at the mall in
Fairview Heights. She is accompanied by daughter Guillermina Sánchez and son-
in-law, Abdias Guardian, 39.

Her grandson Andrew Guardian, 5, runs by.


‘It’s time to return’
The next morning, Romero León’s first full day in America, she sat on the couch in
front of a big-screen television in the family’s two-bedroom home, Oswaldo next
to her on his iPad.

“You’ll lose an eye from looking at that,” she said, and handed out the wooden
toys she’d brought from Cheran.

(Tim
Meko/Washington Post)
The family lives just off Main Street in Germantown, Ill., a town of 1,300 outside
St. Louis, surrounded by farmland, its streets lined with placards bearing the names
of sons and daughters serving in the military. American flags are on everything:
Benches, milk crates, porch swings.
Seventy-seven percent of the town’s voters in 2016 cast their ballots for Donald
Trump.

“Trump is a God!” the kids in Oswaldo’s seventh-grade class yell.


“But they don’t yell it at me,” he said. “Because they know I’m Mexican.”

Guillermina and Abdias moved here in 2002 because it was a safe place to raise
children. They found work easily — she at a plant nursery, he at a landscaping
company. For a while, their children were the only Hispanic students in their
schools. Oswaldo and Andrew, 5, speak almost no Spanish.

Not long after they arrived here, immigration agents raided their home. The family
happened to be staying with friends at the time. They hid at the friends’ house for a
few days until two police officers knocked on the door.

[ Why is Mexican migration slowing while Guatemalan and Honduran migration is


surging? ]

“They told us to send Chelsy back to school,” Guillermina said. “They said they
wouldn’t arrest us.”
She was carefully choosing which parts of her life to share with her mother. That
was a part that she decided to keep to herself.

But a few hours later, when the family took Romero León for her first visit to an
American shopping mall, the issue came up.

“You don’t feel like you need to hide?” Romero León asked.

“Over the years, we’ve become more confident, little by little,” she said.

Romero León had her own secret. She was planning, at some point, to push the
family to move back to Cheran. She had her argument ready. It was safer there, she
would say. They had already saved up and built a house in the town, and it was
sitting empty, waiting for them.

Then there was the other obvious truth: She was getting older.

“I’ll tell her that,” she said. “I’ll tell her it’s time to return.”

But not yet, she decided.

They wandered around the mall, and then drove to the birthday party of Romero
León’s 5-year-old great nephew in St. Louis. A clown made balloon toys for a
crowd of children. Romero León sat down and held a Captain America mask to her
face.

The father of the child handed the clown $250. Romero León was astonished.

“I will become a clown!” she exclaimed. “I will only charge 300 pesos [$15], and
I’ll ask for a little food.”

Romero León brought a stack of photos to share with her family: daughter
Guillermina Sánchez, son-in-law Abdias Guardian, and grandchildren Chelsy
Guardian and Oswaldo Guardian. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
‘They have their lives here’
The program books the Palomas’ first visit to the United States to last three weeks.
But the visas allow them to return for as long as six months in a year. In theory,
they can continue to visit their families in the United States. But that often doesn’t
happen.

The travel is expensive, the logistics complicated. Sometimes, the Palomas are too
infirm for second visits. Sometimes, one visit is enough.

“What we’ve seen a lot is that the parents die soon after returning to Mexico,”
organizer Joaquín Márquez said. “It’s like they were living to see their children
and grandchildren, and after that, they are ready to pass on.”

Romero León and her family knew that at some point they would have to find a
way forward. Would Guillermina, Abdias and the children return to Cheran? That
was the hope Romero León had been nurturing.

But the more time she spent in Germantown, the more she realized it would be a
difficult pitch. Not only did the two youngest children not speak Spanish, but
Chelsy was about to enroll in college. At breakfast one morning, she told her
family her new goal: She would become a dentist.

Romero León looked at the family’s three cars parked outside. On the refrigerator,
there was a newspaper article naming Chelsy student of the week. There was a
photo of Guillermina’s basketball team. There was a tax form from the IRS.

“They have their lives here,” Romero León said.

Romero León plays with her grandson Andrew Guardian. (Sarah L. Voisin/The
Washington Post)
Some of the Palomas react poorly to seeing their families’ American lives up close.
Romero León was adapting. She had five new American blouses, purchased at
Macy’s. She had found the Spanish channels on the television. Her two sons in
Pennsylvania were planning to visit soon. She had quietly taken a few superhero
masks from the birthday party, and played with her grandchildren as Captain
America.

Guillermina was watching her, and thinking over the family’s plans.

“There’s always been something to stop us from returning home,” she said. “First
it was work. Then the kids’ education.”

She paused, considering the newest factor in the family’s calculus.

“And now that my mom has a visa, we have another reason to stay.”

Credits: Story by Kevin Sieff. Photos by Sarah Voisin. Photo editing by Chloe
Coleman.

Romero León sits with daughter Guillermina Sánchez and granddaughter Chelsy
Guardian in the living room of their home in Germantown, Ill., as a train roars by.
(Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

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