When deported mother Yolanda Varona received a call from photojournalist Natalie Keyssar on Friday morning, her voice was quivering. Varona, a Mexican mother of two and leader of the Dreamers Moms of Tijuana, spoke clearly — and forcefully — about her feelings on Donald Trump’s plans to build a wall to fortify the border between the United States and Mexico. In an executive order signed Wednesday evening, President Trump called for the “immediate” construction of the barrier that has already escalated tensions between the two nations.
“I woke up yesterday to this news, and it filled me with sadness,” Varona told Keyssar, a photographer who documented her life in Tijuana — separated from her children — last spring. “To me, the wall means misery. It makes me think of death, of how many people die trying to cross these borders, and it represents hatred for my community. It means separation of families.”
Varona is one of scores of women who have been separated from their children both legally and physically after being deported from the United States. But she has bonded with others facing a similar plight through the activist organization Dreamers Moms. Though their stories vary, the women share a similar fate: They wait in Tijuana, often for years, for a chance to see their families. Some women have lost contact, while others find ways to connect with their children from afar.
Keyssar, whose reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation, spent time with half a dozen Dreamers Moms during her week in Tijuana. Her photographs convey a sense of loss, but the women remained hopeful.
One Dreamers Mom, Emma Sanchez Paulsen, is married to an American military veteran who brings her children, who were born in the United States, to visit as often as they are able. As Sanchez Paulsen waits out a 10-year-ban from the United States for entering the country illegally, she finds ways to connect with her children. In her self-published children’s book “El Pequeño Elfo,” Sanchez-Paulsen explains the separation to her children through illustrations and words.
Montserrat Godoy, another Dreamers Mom, first entered the U.S. illegally with her husband and settled in North Carolina. When she left the relationship and the country because of spousal abuse, she was ultimately separated from her children, who are citizens, when she was denied re-entry to the United States. Godoy said that despite being awarded joint custody by a North Carolina court, the arrangement is untenable and their contact is limited — she remains behind a wall with her children on the other side.
Speaking from limbo in Tijuana, Varona emphasized the human suffering that Trump’s rhetoric obliterates. “He is talking about people,” she told Keyssar. “We feel and love and cry too. We need to be with our families. We need to be making bridges, not borders and divisions. That is what the world needs right now.”