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Elderly Parents, Grandparents Reunite With Undocumented Family Members In Utah

Photo of a family hugging with balloons and flowers.
Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Imelda Vasquez greets her brother, Raul, and other family members at the Mexican consulate in Salt Lake City. Before Sunday, Vasquez hadn't seen Raul in 38 years.

Imelda Vasquez’s heart first broke 38 years ago.

That’s when her younger brother, Raul, left their native Michoacan in central Mexico to find a better paying job in the United States. He left behind his children who Vasquez, now 62, raised as her own.

She suffered another heartbreak when her nephew, traveled north 18 years ago for the same reasons as his father before him. 

“For me, it was like the United States was stealing my family,” she said in Spanish. “I always said I resented the United States.”

Yet Vasquez recognizes the irony in her words now that she is also in the United States, finally reunited with both men. 

“This shows me that God exists and that he has many surprises in store for us,” she said. 

Photo of family hugging in front of group of musicians.
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Imelda Vasquez embraces two family members, one whom she met for the first time, on Sunday at the Mexican consulate in Salt Lake City. Vasquez is a participant of a visa program from Mexico.

She is part of a visa program called palomas mensajeras, or messenger pigeons, that Utah is hosting for the first time. 

At a ceremony held Sunday at the Mexican consulate in Salt Lake City, the Vasquez family and the families of 15 other palomas shared an emotional moment. Vasquez wept when she saw her nephew and her brother in person. 

The whole event was a complete surprise to Raul. He traveled to Utah from Wyoming with another sister who had told him they were going to Salt Lake to fill out paperwork at the consulate. As he hugged his sister tightly — the first time he’d seen her in decades — he laughed and said it was a pleasant surprise even though his other sister lied to him. 

Building Bridges

The program reunites parents or grandparents who are 60 or older with their family members who haven’t been able to visit them for immigration or economic reasons. To qualify for the program, applicants must be residents of the state of Michoacán. But similar reunification programs exist for residents of other Mexican states. 

“It’s really a life changer for those families to have this privilege to have parents come and reconnect,” said Jose Borjón, the consul of Mexico for Salt Lake City.

A man stands in a podium in front of the U.S. and Mexican flags.
Credit Rocio Hernandez / KUER
Jose Borjón, the consul of Mexico in Salt Lake City, speaks to families gathered Sunday at the Mexican consulate in Salt Lake City.

Nearly 9,000 visas have been issued through this program, which started in 2017, according to Eric Cruz Velasquez, one of the program’s organizers. The participants have been able to reunite with family members across the country, including Tennessee, Illinois, California and Texas.

Contrary to narratives that President Donald Trump tells of immigrants who abuse the system, Borjón pointed out that none of the past participants has overstayed their visa. 

“When people are talking about walls and things, what we really need are programs like this which are building bridges,” Borjón said. 

Imelda Vasquez and the others will be with their families for three weeks before they have to return to Mexico. But they’ll be able to visit again as the visas are good for 10 years.

Rocio is coming to KUER after spending most of her life under the blistering Las Vegas sun and later Phoenix. She earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and Spanish at the University of Nevada, Reno. She did brief stints at The Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Reno Public Radio. She enjoys wandering through life with her husband and their toy poodle.
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