Once a year, families torn apart by a broken immigration system gather at the US southern border between Texas and Mexico to briefly reunite. Volunteers from the Border Network for Human Rights stand on either side, facilitating the meetings one by one.
The US immigration system has historically been unwelcoming to refugees and asylum seekers entering through the southern border. Harsh deportation policies often tear families apart. Immigrants with irregular status risk barriers to re-entry if they leave the US to visit their families.
The Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR) aims to bring attention to this broken system through their Hugs Not Walls event. BNHR was founded in 1998 and is based both in West Texas and Southern New Mexico. It has held events since 2016 at the Juárez-El Paso border. Hugs Not Walls is especially significant because of the publicity it generates. The latest Hugs Not Walls took place on October 15th, 2022, and you can find information about it on the BNHR facebook page.
In order to hold the Hugs Not Walls event, BNHR requires cooperation from several legal entities. They have to receive authorization from US Border Patrol, local police departments, and relevant landowners. In 2019, a Hugs Not Walls event scheduled for May was canceled because of administrative pushback within US Customs and Border Protection. It was later rescheduled for October 2019 when new leadership permitted volunteers to move forward with the event.
At the 2021 event, 200 families made up of over 1,000 individuals were able to briefly hug and talk to their loved ones. Family members wore blue on the U.S. side and white on the Mexico side of the border. One by one, families walked out to the middle of the Río Grande riverbed and were given 3 minutes to share space with one another. Once the 3 minutes were up, the family was separated again, and the next family was given time to reunite.
While 3 minutes seems insignificant, for some, this event was the first time they’d seen their family members in years or decades. For example, one parent hadn’t seen their daughter in seven years before Hugs Not Walls facilitated this brief reunion. Another attendee was able to reunite with their parents for the first time in over twenty-two years. This underlies the severity of family separation that the US immigration system perpetuates.
In a press release, executive director of the BNHR, Fernando García, described “Hugs Not Walls” as an “act of protest against inhumane policies and practices” of the border patrol and immigration system. This brief time of family reunification is an emotional experience that families deeply appreciate. It also publicly demonstrates the cruelty of the U.S. deportation policy. The event humanizes a contentious issue by highlighting how people are separated from those they love by arbitrary lines.
This tactic is an example of how the Border Network for Human Rights works to increase publicity about immigration issues within the El-Paso community and beyond. Additionally, BNHR features demonstrations throughout the year to promote humane border policy and solidarity with the immigrant community. For example, the We Are The 11 Million campaign calls for a pathway to citizenship for the 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in the US. BNHR also participates in the El Paso Police Department (EPPD) Accountability Task Force project. This project calls for an independent civilian-led commission to oversee the EPPD. Last but not least, BNHR staff and volunteers meet with legislators to advocate for the rights of immigrants and undocumented residents.
New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.
The organization of an event like Hugs Not Walls presents several challenges for activists. These include administrative and legal obstacles, volunteer recruitment, and community mobilization for the event.
While the US Mexico border is unique, activists across the globe can learn from this tactic. It could be adapted to most border and family separation contexts. Border events must have the institutional support of border patrol agencies to allow activists to host the event without safety concerns from involved governments. The tactic of hosting a family reunification event itself can also be used in the context of institutional barriers to family unification. For example, activists might consider hosting a family reunification campaign for incarcerated family members