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An advocacy group reunites Mexican immigrants with their families for the holidays

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many immigrants in the U.S., especially those who are undocumented, have not been able to see loved ones they'd left back home for years. However, this month, an immigrant rights group has arranged for families to come up from Mexico to visit relatives who have relocated in Alabama. From member station WBHM, Mary Scott Hodgin has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDSPEAKER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: Dozens of people crowd into an event space just outside of Birmingham.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

HODGIN: They set out homemade dishes like salads, a Mexican soup called pozole, cakes with fresh fruit. They decorate tables with balloons and flowers. It's all for their parents, who are on the way from Mexico via the Atlanta airport.

MARIA DEL ROCIO RODRIGUEZ TELLEZ: (Through interpreter) Here we are waiting for them. It's very emotional.

HODGIN: That's Maria del Rocio Rodriguez Tellez. She left home in Michoacan, Mexico, 25 years ago and hasn't been able to return. Until recently, Rodriguez was undocumented like many people in the group. So visiting family in Mexico meant risking not being able to get back into this country. Rodriguez now has a pending immigration case, but she still doesn't have permission to leave and reenter the U.S.

DEL ROCIO RODRIGUEZ TELLEZ: (Through interpreter) You know, the desire to come here and having to come here for a better future - but you sacrifice a lot.

HODGIN: A bus pulls up to the event space. It's the parents. Many have traveled all day and night. I step inside and ask how the trip was.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).

HODGIN: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).

HODGIN: They say it was great. They're tired, but very happy.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).

HODGIN: Rodriguez's parents sit towards the back. Her mom, Elitania Tellez Maldonado, says the trip from their small town in Michoacan was an adventure.

ELITANIA TELLEZ MALDONADO: (Through interpreter) Yes, because it's the first time we've flown.

HODGIN: Tellez says she's tried to get a tourist visa three times to visit her daughter and was always denied. She doesn't know why. That's not uncommon, according to Monica Black. She's with the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, the group organizing the event.

MONICA BLACK: I mean, there are people who have applied seven times, and it have been denied.

HODGIN: To get tourist visas, people have to show ties to Mexico, like proof of employment or a mortgage, something to convince U.S. immigration authorities that they plan to return home after their trip. Black says under their program, parents apply for visas together as part of a cultural visit.

BLACK: When they are going in big groups, it's easy for them to be authorized.

HODGIN: The Alabama Immigrant Coalition works with Mexican officials to streamline the process, but it can still take a while. Depending on where they apply, people in Mexico have to wait up to two years or more to interview for an individual tourist visa. That's according to the U.S. State Department's website.

(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)

HODGIN: As the reunions begin, piano music starts to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDSPEAKER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

HODGIN: After 25 years, announces the master of ceremonies. He calls out the parents' names, and they meet their children in the middle of the room. They hug and cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDSPEAKER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

HODGIN: One family hired a mariachi band to celebrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HODGIN: Black says they've been overwhelmed by the demand to participate in these visits. Nearly 600 people have applied, and 600 more are on a waitlist.

BLACK: It's a job that is very satisfactory for us and for all the families. And we see that this is a need that our community is asking for.

HODGIN: Many Mexican immigrants have lived in Alabama for decades. They now have kids and grandkids here. And Black says they want to share that with their parents. The visits last up to two months, and families soak up every minute.

TELLEZ MALDONADO: (Speaking Spanish, laughing).

HODGIN: A few weeks after the reunion, Rodriguez and her parents gather in her kitchen. Rodriguez is in heaven as she savors her mom's chicharrones with tomato salsa and special rice for the first time in decades. Her parents, Elitania Tellez Maldonado and Camilo Rodriguez Mares, are grateful.

TELLEZ MALDONADO: (Through interpreter) It's something I carry deep in my heart - to see my children, to share life with them, to get to know so much of their lives here.

CAMILO RODRIGUEZ MARES: (Through interpreter) The great-grandchildren - and to get to know all the great-grandchildren.

HODGIN: So far, the family has gone to the beach and to a basketball game. They love to watch telenovelas together late at night. And they can't wait to celebrate Christmas Eve together tonight for the first time in a quarter century. For NPR News, I'm Mary Scott Hodgin in Birmingham.

(SOUNDBITE OF RODRIGO Y GABRIELA'S "THE SOUNDMAKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Scott Hodgin