CHERAN, Mexico — María Dominga Romero León bent over a small black suitcase and packed her things, one by one: A folder of photographs, a half-finished blouse, a bag of wooden toys for the grandchildren she’d never met.
“They’re probably used to America by now,” she said.
Romero León, 68, hadn’t seen her daughter Guillermina in so long that she was starting to lose track of the years. Had it been 15 or 20? She wasn’t sure. What she knew was that Guillermina was an undocumented immigrant in a place called Germantown in Illinois with three children of her own. Two were U.S. citizens; one was a beneficiary of the federal program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Romero León knew that U.S. immigration laws made it impossible for her daughter to come back to Cheran without jeopardizing the life she had built in the United States, because she didn’t have papers to move back and forth across the border.
That’s why Romero León was packing her bags. She had never been on an airplane, or been to an airport, or seen an escalator — she’d never left her home state of Michoacan. But now she was getting ready to fly to America.
The U.S. government — the same government from which Romero León’s daughter was hiding — had surprised her with a tourist visa.
Officials in Michoacan call them Palomas Mensajeras (Messenger Pigeons.) They are parents and grandparents in Mexico who have not seen their undocumented children in the United States for years, even decades.
Since 2017, officials here have been working with the U.S. State Department to reunite those families for three-week visits in cities and towns across the United States.
For many here, it is an unlikely American olive branch amid the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration. But it has been welcomed by immigrant families grappling with a crisis that has rippled across both countries: The elderly parents of the estimated 5 million undocumented Mexicans in the United States are dying alone in Mexico while their children remain stuck on the other side of the border.
Romero León’s husband died of complications from diabetes a year ago. During his final days, she held a phone to his ear so their children could speak to him from the United States. Three of the couple’s six children were undocumented immigrants living across the border.
“It was hard for him,” Romero León said, “to be sick, to be dying so far away from them.
“I thought, ‘Will it be the same for me?’ ”
Still, when she learned that she would be joining 21 other elderly residents from around Cheran on a flight to Chicago, she found it hard to understand. Why had the United States granted her a visa? Was it a trick to apprehend her daughter?
“That’s what I’m worried about,” she said. “Are they going to use this to arrest them?”
The U.S. government hasn’t specifically endorsed the program, a State Department spokesman said in a statement. But officials last year began designating special interview days at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City for elderly visa applicants who “frequently travel in groups to the United States for a variety of reasons including tourism, cultural programs, and to visit friends and family such as U.S. citizen grandchildren.”
The spokesman made no mention of the generation between the Mexican grandparents and the American grandchildren. But in practice, the Palomas Mensajeras program is exclusively for elderly Michoacanos who live in Mexico and have undocumented children in the United States.
Trump — of the border wall proposal, family separations and the national emergency at the U.S.-Mexico border — has taken a different approach toward the undocumented. “Please do not make yourselves too comfortable,” he tweeted this month, “you will be leaving soon!”
The State Department spokesman declined to answer questions about why the United States is facilitating reunions between Mexicans and their undocumented children.
The department has been issuing 10-year, multiple-entry visas to Michoacanos age 60 and older who have not themselves been in the United States illegally. The families pay for the visas and flights themselves.
The program has sent more than 5,000 visitors to the United States in the past 30 months.
“We believe we have between 600,000 and 800,000 undocumented Michoacanos living in the United States, and this program is for them,” said José Luis Gutiérrez, the secretary of migration in Michoacan. “It’s a way for us to tell them they’re important to us, that we appreciate the remittances and that we care.”
Gutiérrez said he met with the State Department several times leading up to the program’s creation in 2017 and explained “the importance of what we were trying to do.”
Not a single participant has overstayed a visa, he said.
Other Mexican states have started similar programs. In Zacatecas, it’s known as “Heart of Silver.” In Puebla, it’s “Roots of Puebla.”
Organizers warn the undocumented children not to meet their parents at the airport, where they might be asked for identification. Parents applying for visas are encouraged to list the addresses of relatives or friends who are in the United States legally, rather than provide contact information for their children illegally in the country.
Romero León fed her horse, Zacapa, and her dog, Juanito. She collected corn to sell at the local market. She tried to remember what the program’s organizers had told her about what she could take to the United States.
She held the bag of wooden toys.
“Is this okay?” she asked.
“And this?” indicating a clump of thread.
“It’s so complicated.”
She sighed again, decided to pack only one change of clothes and zipped the black bag shut.
She was still trying to make sense of the program, to figure out what she would do with her three weeks in America.
“They say this is about reuniting families, that it’s safe for them even though they don’t have papers. But I don’t know,” she said.
“I’ll tell her, ‘It’s time for you to move back.’ ”
‘There was no work here’
Cheran, a town of 16,000 in the hills of central Mexico, is the ancestral home of the Purépecha indigenous people. For centuries, it was an isolated dot in the state of Michoacan where the native, pre-Hispanic language was more common than Spanish.
Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, young men and women started leaving for the United States — the beginning of a migration that would remake Cheran. The town lost thousands of sons and daughters, but gained millions of dollars in remittances. Suddenly it was connected to the outside world. Cherani clustered in Chicago, St. Louis, Raleigh, N.C.
Guillermina Sánchez, Romero León’s daughter, left on New Year’s Day 2002, carrying her six-month-old daughter and a tourist visa she planned to overstay. They would reunite with Guillermina’s husband, Abdias, who had sneaked across the border a few weeks earlier and was waiting in Chicago.
“They said it would be two years, and then they would be back,” Romero León said.
“I’m not mad. I understand why they stayed. There was no work here. But, still, it’s a long time.”
She took up her black bag and began walking to the center of town. The small woman with long, straight hair that she’d never once cut headed for the bus that would take the Palomas away. There was about her a quiet grace that masked how nervous she was.
Every few steps she was stopped by a friend or neighbor.
“I’m going to the United States,” she told one woman.
“I’ll tell everyone you said hello,” she promised another.
She climbed onto the bus and waved goodbye through the window. The trip organizers are now experts in shepherding the elderly travelers through international airports, translating between Spanish, English and Purépecha, holding onto passports, reassuring nervous old men and women that the plane won’t crash.
It was late at night when Romero León and her 21 fellow pilgrims were guided through customs and security at the Guadalajara airport and on into the terminal.
Airport workers looked at the group with curiosity.
Romero León spotted an escalator. She was bewildered.
“Is it a game?” she whispered.
One woman’s bag seemed about to burst.
“What did you pack?” Romero León asked.
“It’s mostly fish and cheese,” the woman said.
One man tried to imagine what it would be like to meet his grandchildren for the first time.
“I’m not sure they will even be emotional,” he said, shrugging.
Romero León took her place on the plane and quietly said a little prayer. The plane took off and she fell asleep, the bag of photos and toys in the overhead compartment.
‘I’m not going to cry’
Guillermina Sánchez waited with Abdias and their children at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Winfield, Ill., a few miles outside Chicago.
The bus carrying Romero León and the rest of the group would be arriving any minute.
“Do you think we’ll even recognize her?” Chelsy Guardian, 18, Sánchez’s daughter, asked her brother Oswaldo, 13.
“I think so,” he said, shrugging.
“I think it’s going to be a little awkward for a while,” Chelsy said.
When the bus pulled up to the church, she saw her grandmother through the window.
“It was like seeing a mirage in the desert,” she said later.
Inside a church hall, dozens of children formed a receiving line. Chelsy held a sign: “Bienvenidos Mama Minga.”
Pedro Tomás, one of the program’s organizers, wielded a microphone like a master of ceremonies.
“These are families that haven’t seen each other for 15, 20 or 30 years,” he said. “It’s been difficult for all of you. But now you can finally be together again.”
The elderly men and women entered the hall one at a time, each looking a little confused and a little unsteady until their children and grandchildren came up and embraced them in a shock of flowers and balloons.
“Mom!” a man in his 40s exclaimed, his arms open wide.
“I love you so much!” a little girl told her grandmother.
Romero León was one of the last to be introduced.
“I’m not going to cry,” she said. Then she walked into the room, standing up straight.
Guillermina took her mother’s hand and pulled her close. Chelsy burst into tears and threw her arms around her grandmother. Then Oswaldo, whose own tears flowed down his face, hugged her, resting his head on her shoulder.
Guillermina thought: “My mother has become old.”
Romero León tried to remain in control of her own emotions. She didn’t want her family to think she was fragile. And she worried that if she got too emotional, it might make her sick.
But then she felt it, all at once. She covered her face with a scarf and wept.
“My daughter,” she said through tears. “My grandchildren.”
‘It’s time to return’
The next morning, Romero León’s first full day in America, she sat on the couch in front of a big-screen television in the family’s two-bedroom home, Oswaldo next to her on his iPad.
“You’ll lose an eye from looking at that,” she said, and handed out the wooden toys she’d brought from Cheran.
The family lives just off Main Street in Germantown, Ill., a town of 1,300 outside St. Louis, surrounded by farmland, its streets lined with placards bearing the names of sons and daughters serving in the military. American flags are on everything: Benches, milk crates, porch swings. Seventy-seven percent of the town’s voters in 2016 cast their ballots for Donald Trump.
“Trump is a God!” the kids in Oswaldo’s seventh-grade class yell.
“But they don’t yell it at me,” he said. “Because they know I’m Mexican.”
Guillermina and Abdias moved here in 2002 because it was a safe place to raise children. They found work easily — she at a plant nursery, he at a landscaping company. For a while, their children were the only Hispanic students in their schools. Oswaldo and Andrew, 5, speak almost no Spanish.
Not long after they arrived here, immigration agents raided their home. The family happened to be staying with friends at the time. They hid at the friends’ house for a few days until two police officers knocked on the door.
“They told us to send Chelsy back to school,” Guillermina said. “They said they wouldn’t arrest us.”
She was carefully choosing which parts of her life to share with her mother. That was a part that she decided to keep to herself.
But a few hours later, when the family took Romero León for her first visit to an American shopping mall, the issue came up.
“You don’t feel like you need to hide?” Romero León asked.
“Over the years, we’ve become more confident, little by little,” she said.
Romero León had her own secret. She was planning, at some point, to push the family to move back to Cheran. She had her argument ready. It was safer there, she would say. They had already saved up and built a house in the town, and it was sitting empty, waiting for them.
Then there was the other obvious truth: She was getting older.
“I’ll tell her that,” she said. “I’ll tell her it’s time to return.”
But not yet, she decided.
They wandered around the mall, and then drove to the birthday party of Romero León’s 5-year-old great nephew in St. Louis. A clown made balloon toys for a crowd of children. Romero León sat down and held a Captain America mask to her face.
The father of the child handed the clown $250. Romero León was astonished.
“I will become a clown!” she exclaimed. “I will only charge 300 pesos [$15], and I’ll ask for a little food.”
‘They have their lives here’
The program books the Palomas’ first visit to the United States to last three weeks. But the visas allow them to return for as long as six months in a year. In theory, they can continue to visit their families in the United States. But that often doesn’t happen.
The travel is expensive, the logistics complicated. Sometimes, the Palomas are too infirm for second visits. Sometimes, one visit is enough.
“What we’ve seen a lot is that the parents die soon after returning to Mexico,” organizer Joaquín Márquez said. “It’s like they were living to see their children and grandchildren, and after that, they are ready to pass on.”
Romero León and her family knew that at some point they would have to find a way forward. Would Guillermina, Abdias and the children return to Cheran? That was the hope Romero León had been nurturing.
But the more time she spent in Germantown, the more she realized it would be a difficult pitch. Not only did the two youngest children not speak Spanish, but Chelsy was about to enroll in college. At breakfast one morning, she told her family her new goal: She would become a dentist.
Romero León looked at the family’s three cars parked outside. On the refrigerator, there was a newspaper article naming Chelsy student of the week. There was a photo of Guillermina’s basketball team. There was a tax form from the IRS.
“They have their lives here,” Romero León said.
Some of the Palomas react poorly to seeing their families’ American lives up close. Romero León was adapting. She had five new American blouses, purchased at Macy’s. She had found the Spanish channels on the television. Her two sons in Pennsylvania were planning to visit soon. She had quietly taken a few superhero masks from the birthday party, and played with her grandchildren as Captain America.
Guillermina was watching her, and thinking over the family’s plans.
“There’s always been something to stop us from returning home,” she said. “First it was work. Then the kids’ education.”
She paused, considering the newest factor in the family’s calculus.
“And now that my mom has a visa, we have another reason to stay.”