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Visa program allows Mexican grandparents to visit local relatives

Rosalva Calderon Alvarez and Sofia Alvarez Aguirre were among 16 grandparents who got off the plane from Mexico on Feb. 17 and boarded a bus to a banquet hall in Waukegan, expecting to be reunited and more — to see grandchildren they had yet to meet in person.

Each grandparent was accompanied to the venue individually. Waiting for Alvarez were his son Armando Lopez, his daughter-in-law Elizabeth Guerrero and his one-year-old grandson Azeneth Lopez, whom he had never met.

“I was very, very happy,” Alvarez said. “I was full of emotions. I hugged her and touched her and I wasn’t dreaming. I cried. I couldn’t believe he was in my arms.”

U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Highland Park, greets a group of grandparents arriving from Mexico. (Steve Sadin/Lake County News-Sun)

It was different for Aguirre. His son, Fernando Alvarado Alvarez, said he came to the Waukegan area in 1999. They have five children aged between 11 and 26. Aguirre had never met the four youngest children.

“I can’t even explain how I felt when I met them,” Aguirre said. “I never thought I would. When I saw them, I wanted to hug them and not let go.”

Alvarez and Aguirre will meet Sunday at Cristo Rey St. They were two of 16 grandparents who attended the Abuelitas family reunion celebration at Martin College Preparatory School, where they met two men primarily responsible for the short-term visa program.

First launched in 2005 by former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Highland Park, when he represented the 10th Congressional District, Abuelitas (the Spanish word for “grandmothers”) was relaunched this year by U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Highland Park . With the help of Kirk and officials on both sides of the border.

Schneider and Kirk co-hosted the event with members of Waukegan’s Club San Jose. Club member Laura Pizano said the club is a group of people from the same town in Mexico who come together socially and help people who still live there.

Both Kirk and Schneider said Club San Jose was important in organizing the reunion, which allows Mexican citizens age 55 and older to visit relatives on short-term visas in the 10th Congressional District, which covers most of Lake County. The group was scheduled to return to Mexico on March 15.

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Highland Park, right, speaks to a family at an Abuelitas meeting.  (Steve Sadin/Lake County News-Sun)
Former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Highland Park, right, speaks to a family at an Abuelitas meeting. (Steve Sadin/Lake County News-Sun)

Sharing the story of her immigrant grandmother, who escaped from Kiev when she was a young girl in 1912, Schneider talked about the values ​​she learned from her grandmother and her importance in her life. This is the same in many cultures, she said.

“It’s no different than the generations that are here today,” he said. “When I was a little kid and felt sick, I would ask my mother to have Grandma Mollie take care of me. The time you spend with your grandparents is never enough.

After attending lunch and visiting with the families, Schneider said he was impressed by the reunions. Some were more than twenty years in the making. She said it was difficult for her to be separated from her oldest son while his son was on active duty in the U.S. Navy.

Three days before meeting with families, Schneider spoke for several minutes with President Joseph Biden at the U.S. Capitol following Biden’s State of the Union Address. He compared the two experiences.

“My mom would be more proud if she saw this,” he said of the reunion.

U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Highland Park, speaks to a group of families, including grandparents from Mexico.  (Steve Sadin/Lake County News-Sun)
U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, D-Highland Park, speaks to a group of families, including grandparents from Mexico. (Steve Sadin/Lake County News-Sun)

Kirk, who has fond memories of the program he started while in office, said he was excited to see the first reunion since Abuelitas restarted.

“This is the end of a long wait for most grandparents,” he said. “Some have been living apart for 10 or 20 years. This is too long.”

Kirk, who left office eight years ago, said Congress is more divided now than it was when he served. He and Schneider appeared together at high schools to demonstrate bipartisanship. He thought the importance of family should not be a partisan issue.

“Who could be afraid of a little Mexican grandma?” said Kirk.

When Kirk and Schneider began their studies, they went to Club San Jose. It was relevant before. Pizano said he and other members went to work to make arrangements and help obtain temporary visas. Looking forward to the next meeting.

Former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Highland Park, greets a group of grandparents arriving from Mexico through a program he created nearly 20 years ago.  (Steve Sadin/Lake County News-Sun)
Former U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Highland Park, greets a group of grandparents arriving from Mexico through a program he created nearly 20 years ago. (Steve Sadin/Lake County News-Sun)

The idea was born in 2005, when Kirk, who was educated in Mexico and spoke fluent Spanish, visited Tonotiko, Mexico. The mayor there asked him to run city hall. The meeting was held in a church with the participation of a crowd that included many elderly women.

“’How many of you have family in Waukegan?’ I asked. About half of them raised their hands,” Kirk said. “‘How many years have you been separated?’ ” I asked. The average was around 20 years.”

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