Boston Student Reunites With Mom at U.S.-Mexico Border in Fight For Immigration Reform

Renata Teodoro is here as part of Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Photo via Teodoro

Photo via Facebook/Renata Teodoro

Renata Teodoro sat in the 110-degree weather in Arizona on Tuesday as her mother slowly played with her hair, scolding her for not practicing her Portuguese.

The two hadn’t seen each other in more than seven years and had a lot to catch up on, so they endured the blistering heat beating down on their shoulders as Teodoro showed her mother a handful of awards she had recently won during her time as a student at UMass Boston.

For the first hour, they cried—hard. Not just because they hadn’t seen one another in nearly a decade, but because they couldn’t even fully embrace through the massive wrought iron fence that separated them at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Everyone is debating immigration reform right now, and we wanted to show what the family separation looked liked. For me, what it looks like, is being with my mom,” said Teodoro, who just returned from Arizona to Boston on Wednesday. “When I planned this, I had this picture of seeing each other and being happy, but when I got there and saw her behind a fence, I became angry that I couldn’t reach out to her and give her a real hug. I pictured us meeting very differently, running toward each other at the airport, or me surprising her at home … not behind a fence.”

The meet-up—with Teodoro, 25, on American soil, and her mother, Gorete Borges Teodoro, 52, in Mexico—was just as much about protesting immigration laws as it was a rekindling of a mother-daughter relationship. Their meeting, which included two other families that Teodoro traveled with, was part of “Operation Butterfly,” an action organized and filmed by members of the United We Dream Network, a national youth-led immigration advocacy group that Teodoro is part of.

Teodoro said an immigration officer allowed them to meet, but kept a watchful eye as they sat in the summer heat. “At first, we were really scared. He just sat there keeping guard and making sure nothing was going on,” she said.

The encounter, which lasted from 9 a.m. until just after 5 p.m., was also documented in an emotional photo taken by the New York Times, which quickly went viral the next day. The visit has left a “hollow feeling” inside for Teodoro since she returned to her apartment, however. “I feel weird. I have just been waiting for so long to see her, and I’m sad that it’s over. I feel kind of sad, and a little weird, too,” she said.

Teodoro first moved with her family to the U.S. from Brazil when she was six years old. Her father filed for political asylum in 2001, but his application was denied, and he was deported. Five years later, immigration officers stormed Teodoro’s Brockton residence where she lived with her younger brother, mother, and sister. Teodoro and her mother were at work at the time, but officials seized her mother’s passport and detained her brother. Rather than dodge the agency, however, Teodoro’s mother turned herself in, and within months was forced to move back to Brazil. The family had to sell the house, and Teodoro later moved into a Boston apartment with friends.

Because of legislation signed by President Barack Obama in 2012, Teodoro was eligible to stay in the country and receive a work permit while continuing to go to school at UMass. Called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Obama’s proposal allowed those that could prove they arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16 and were still enrolled in school to remain in the U.S. The temporary status bars her from traveling outside of the country to see family, however.

But time is running out for Teodoro, who has been paying for tuition out of pocket while working various jobs to stay afloat. “It expires in two years, and I got it [approved] at the end of last March. If it still exists and is passed again, I can renew it. And if it doesn’t, and nothing has passed, I’m back to where I started,” she said.

Last Tuesday, as Teodoro and her mother locked arms through the rusted poles of the fence in the Arizona sun, a battle continued to broil between elected officials in Congress over the country’s immigration laws.

Within hours of Teodoro and her mother’s conversation, President Barack Obama spoke to supporters at the White House about the country’s “broken immigration system,” and urged the Senate to pass a new proposal that he called a bipartisan plan to clear a path to earned citizenship for people like Teodoro. “That’s what immigration reform looks like,” Obama said. “Smarter enforcement. A pathway to earned citizenship. Improvements to the legal system. They’re all commonsense steps.”

But until something changes and new legislation is passed, those on a limited program like Teodoro don’t know when they’ll see their loved ones without risking being shut out from the country they have grown accustomed to. “People keep telling me to just keep fighting,” she said.

Below is the video of the United We Dream members meeting with their families at the border of Mexico.