EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Pennsylvania resident Victor Pantaleon likes to keep abreast of events in his native Mexico. So, when he saw an online notice for a binational family reunion in the middle of the Rio Grande, he quickly signed up for it.

Victor Pantaleon

“I haven’t seen my family in 18 years. My brother died recently, and I was not able to go to his funeral. This opportunity to see them, to hug them, is priceless,” said Pantaleon, who flew 1,800 miles from Lancaster to El Paso.

His grandmother, father, mother and two siblings traveled 1,200 miles from Oaxaca to Juarez, Mexico, so they could meet him on the U.S. border.

The Pantaleon family was among 150 other families that walked onto a makeshift stage in the middle of the river on Saturday in the 10th “Hugs Not Walls” event sponsored by Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR). The families talked, hugged and cried for five minutes before yielding their place on the stage to the next group.

Border Patrol agents watched from a distance to make sure the blue-shirted Mexican members went back to their side of the river and the yellow-clad U.S. residents did not go across.  

Since 2016, the event has facilitated physical contact between blood relatives separated by their inability to cross the border due to immigration status.

The reunions bring joy to those estranged by an international border and are meant to draw attention to the need for U.S. immigration reform, said Fernando Garcia, executive director of BNHR.

“This is an event of love, of humanity, but it is also a protest against inhumane policies that our governments in the United States and Mexico are implementing at the border,” Garcia said.

The human rights activist said this year’s event came close to being canceled. That’s because the group had secured U.S. government permission to hold the family reunion on the river near the Border Highway and Yarborough Drive intersection in El Paso’s Lower Valley.

But Texas National Guard troops who are trying to prevent migrants from getting to the U.S. border wall extended a miles-long barbwire fence past the planned reunion point. The location shifted at the last minute to Paisano Drive near the Texas-New Mexico border.

“We have never held an event under such conditions, with the border being so militarized. I don’t think governments realize what they are doing, which is not only separating families but hurting our community’s way of life,” Garcia said, adding the State of Texas and some in the federal government seem to be at war with migrants.

Several city and county officials, as well as the mayor of Juarez, showed up to support the event.

City Rep. Alexsandra Annello urged Americans to be aware of what a paramount decision it is for people to leave their countries and families behind and all that they go through to come to the United States.

“When people come to this country, they are making a decision (to leave) their families, their parents, their siblings and their children. This is not just about immigration, it’s about one of the hardest choices people will make in their lives and this event (illustrates) that,” she said.

Juliana Ferron meets her grandson, for the first time ever, in the middle of the Rio Grande between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. (KTSM photo)

Juliana Ferron, a Mexican citizen wearing a yellow shirt, said she has lived a good life in the United States since 2008 and would like the opportunity to become a legal resident. She often hears about the 1986 legalization brought by the Immigration Reform and Control Act and wonders if something similar could be part of a new immigration reform bill.

“I have not seen my children in 15 years. They already have small children that I don’t know and married spouses that I have not met,” she said. “It’s hard to be on this side. It tears your heart out. It is hard to let go of the embrace and go back to the routine.”

On Saturday, she got to meet and hug her youngest grandson.