TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – In her central Mexico home, Maria Remedios Duarte sometimes wondered if she would ever again see the six sons who went north one after another, looking for better opportunities in the United States.
“I’d lie in bed thinking about them, about how long they’ve been away,” she said.
About 1,000 miles and an international border separate Duarte from her children. She lives in Doctor Mora, a small town in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Her sons make their home in Tucson.
Duarte this month was able to see her children again, thanks to a Guanajuato government program that helps residents older than 60 reunite with family members north of the border. She was one of 32 people who received state assistance in obtaining a U.S. visa to visit family in Tucson for 30 days.
At a welcoming event for the Guanajuato residents, Duarte’s sons and their families lavished her with attention. The first son to migrate, Ramon Ramírez, had not seen his mother since 1998.
“It’s great to finally have her here,” Ramírez said. “We had tried to get her here before, but it just couldn’t be done.”
The scene at Duarte’s table was repeated throughout a room filled with food, flowers and families that had been apart for more than a decade. Faces beamed. Tears of joy flowed freely. Mariachi music blared.
The makeup of the Tucson families gathered at a church was a snapshot of the larger immigrant population in this country: parents with legal status, undocumented parents, and U.S.-born children with siblings born in Mexico who grew up here.
Duarte said it would have been impossible for her to get a visa without backing from the Guanajuato government. The same was true for Eliseo Valencia and his wife, Maria Jimenez, both 77.
The couple yearned to see their daughter, Rosalba Valencia, and the three grandchildren they’d never met. They made plans to visit them in Tucson, but their U.S. visa applications were denied twice.
Then they heard about a program offered through Guanajuato’s Secretariat for Social and Human Development, which helps seniors with few resources ease the process of obtaining a U.S. visa on humanitarian grounds so they can visit family members. Government workers also handle travel logistics and relatives in the United States pay for round-trip airfare.
“We would’ve never been able to come here without the government’s support,” said Eliseo Valencia, sitting in his daughter’s living room.
He and his wife had not seen her since she married her longtime sweetheart back home and both left for the United States in 2004.
The highland state of Guanajuato has a traditionally high rate of migration to the U.S., where 1.3 million of its natives now live. It’s the third-highest recipient of money sent by migrants to relatives in Mexico, which in 2016 received a record $26.97 billion in remittances, according to Mexico’s central bank.
“Last year, they sent us $2,400 million [$2.4 billion] in remittances,” said Diego Sinhue Rodríguez Vallejo, head of the Secretariat.
Arizona ranks third in population of Guanajuato exiles, behind California and Texas, with about 60,700 former Guanajuato residents. More than a half million migrants make their home in the other two states, where families also have been reunited, according to Guanajuato government data.
The program is known as Mineros de Plata, or Silver Miners, a name that alludes to the state’s mining heritage and the travelers’ silver hair. It’s one of several that Rodríguez said the state has created in recent years to support migrants, including some that help people find jobs or start small businesses when they return home – either voluntarily or because they’ve been deported from the United States.
The government promotes the reunification program through clubs formed by Guanajuato migrants in several U.S. cities.
“It’s a humanitarian program,” Rodríguez said. “What we seek to do is bring these families together, but unfortunately not everyone who applies qualifies.”
Applicants who haven’t seen their children in at least a decade must be between 60 and 85. And if U.S. records show that the parents ever crossed the border without proper documentation, they become ineligible for a visa, Rodriguez said.
The program, in its second year, has helped reunite parents and children in Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and now Tucson.
“These reunions are priceless,” Rodríguez said, pointing to a man who wiped tears as he embraced his mother at the welcoming event.
“He had not seen her in 24 years; he left when she was 52 and she’s now 76.”
Back at Rosalba Valencia’s house, she and her parents were getting ready for another day of visiting extended family in town. The past few days have been a whirlwind of sightseeing activity.
“It’s been very enjoyable so far,” her mother said. “It’s nice to see how the family lives here.”
In another part of town, Ramon Ramírez and his siblings also were making the most of the time they have with their mother.
“None of us wants to leave her side,” he said.
That includes the grandchildren and great-grandchildren she knew only from pictures.
(CNS photo by Lourdes Medrano shows Eliseo Valencia and his wife, Maria Jimenez (center and right), reunited with their daughter Rosalba Valencia and her children in Tucson after years of separation.)