One line of families winds down from the US city of El Paso, Texas, and the other line meanders from Mexico’s Ciudad Juarez, Tamaulipas. They meet on the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande, a concrete culvert that marks the border between the United States and Mexico. These are family members separated by US immigration policies, and when they reach the bottom, they finally have a moment in which they can see, touch, and hug one another.
This is the scene of the eighth annual Hugs Not Walls event, which is happening today and organized by the Border Network for Human Rights. The tearjerker Netflix documentary “A Three Minute Hug” records families meeting during the event in 2018. It’s an excellent way to understand the emotional impact of the experience for participants.
I’m joining the Border Network for Human Rights at this year’s event. Human Rights Watch’s work over decades on the US immigration system has documented its devastating impact on the rights to home and family. Much of this harm flows from linking the immigration system to the criminal legal system, resulting in a disproportionate impact on people of color including Black, Latinx, and Southeast Asian communities. For decades the United States immigration system has deported hundreds of thousands of individuals, permanently separating them from their loved ones and destabilizing communities. Families may also be separated because the US has so far failed to provide opportunities for millions of people who have built their lives in the United States, to secure permanent legal status, complicating any chance they might have to visit family abroad.
This year, the Hugs not Walls event also commemorates Juneteenth, now a US national holiday celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. This convergence highlights an urgent need for the United States to write racism out of its cruel and abusive immigration laws, restoring fundamental principles of due process and compassion that keep families together and help communities thrive.
The transformation this system needs would allow these families, meeting at the border, the opportunity to turn their three-minute hugs in the middle of dry riverbed into real opportunities to reunite and stay with their loved ones.