BOSTON — It was a reunion between mother and daughter from opposite sides of a massive steel fence at the United States-Mexico border.
The moment was meant to draw attention to immigration reform, and a photo of that emotional moment, captured by The New York Times, has gone viral.
The younger woman in it is Renata Teodoro, who lives in Boston and is a student at UMass Boston. She spoke with WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer Thursday while waiting to catch a flight home from the airport in Albuquerque, N.M.
Sacha Pfeiffer: First, a little background: Your family came to the U.S. from Brazil illegally when you were 6 years old, is that right?
Renata Teodoro: Yup, we crossed the border when I was 6 years old with my mom and my brother and my younger sister to reunite with my father.
He was already in the United States?
And you’re now 25, but you can’t be deported currently because of the deportation deferral program announced by President Obama about a year ago?
Yes. So that means I can’t be deported unless I commit a crime and I can work here. It’s because I came when I was young, and we have been fighting for years to pass the DREAM Act but it didn’t pass. So we put pressure on Obama to pass a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which would give us a temporary status until we could pass something larger.
Your mother was deported back to Brazil about six years ago. You had not seen her since that time, until you were reunited this week?
Yes, that’s correct.
What was that like? I mean, when you approached that fence at the Arizona/Mexico border, this photo shows your mom grasping your hand as you’re holding one of those metal poles of the fence. It looks like both of you are crying. What was it like to see your mom after not having seen her since 2007?
Originally when I was thinking of reuniting at the fence, I was, like, really happy that I was going to get to see my mom. But it wasn’t until that moment when we actually got to the fence and I just became really angry. You know, I always had pictured us reuniting differently. I always pictured us either meeting at the airport or running toward each other or me surprising her in Brazil. I just pictured it really differently. And then when I got to that moment and I saw my mom crying behind this rusty fence, I just started crying because she was so upset. It was just really difficult that I couldn’t be there to hold her.
Was the anger because of a policy that you feel separates you?
Yes. I can work here legally and I can’t go see her. I can’t be with her, and she can’t be here. My mom raised us here, and she misses here. So I’m just really angry that this policy was in place and it separated us and it put a strain in our family.
But, Renata, what do you say to people who oppose the immigration reform bill now being debated, and they say that because your parents came here illegally they have to face the consequences and shouldn’t get any special treatment?
I say to them that my parents did everything that they could. They wanted to give us food and the best way to do that was by coming here. And I know that a lot of Americans really care about their children and they care about their family and they would have done the same. My parents owned a house here, they worked here, they paid their taxes here. And I just really want people to look into their hearts and see that we’re just a regular American family.
Did they go through any process of trying to become documented?
Oh yes. My dad had filed for political asylum, and he also had an employer sign for him back in the ’90s through the Labor Act. But his political asylum case was denied, so he had to leave the country in 2001. So the only reason why we couldn’t adjust our status was because immigration told my father to leave.
This meeting was a long time in the works. Can you tell us a bit about how it came to be about? Because you and two other people were reunited with your family at the same time.
Yes. Some of the leaders in the United We Dream network, the national network that we’re all a part of, thought it would be great if people could see their families at the border and to really show that. And I was contacted and they said, “What do you think of this idea?” And I was like, “I get to see my mom? This is great.” And so I just jumped on board and we started planning right away.
In the Times story that accompanied the photo of you and your mom reuniting, there was a description of the meeting as “a new piece of the highly personal political theater” that young immigrants have been using to “dramatize” their support for the immigration reform bill now in the U.S. Senate. Would you agree with that — that there was a political theater aspect to this?
No. I don’t really like the word political theater. This wasn’t a production. This wasn’t us acting. This was us reuniting with our moms, and those emotions were very real. We wanted to put our stories out there and show people in America this is what family separation looks like. So I really disagree with the description as political theater because it was just a real moment between us.