The streets of Juarez, without a passport, was just one telling episode shared by two Hood River woman who recently returned from El Paso, Texas.
Mariah Carlson and Janet Hamada volunteered this spring on behalf of refugees from Central America waiting to enter the United States.
“The treatment of the kids is what gets me,” Carlson, a retired nurse, said of harsh treatment of families by ICE authorities.
“Kids are kids no matter where they come from,” she said.
Hamada and Carlson are friends who felt the need to find some way to help people detained at the border.
“We were looking for months for some way to help, for a connection,” said Carlson, who spent six weeks in El Paso. Hamada joined for a week.
The two women will give a talk they are calling “Witness At The Border” on their experiences Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Riverside Community Church in Hood River. The event is free. The speakers will explain how help can go to Annunciation House in El Paso.
Carlson, a retired massage therapist and midwife, has spent time in Haiti and Louisiana after hurricanes struck, and on relief projects in Dominican Republic and Guatemala.
Hamada took personal time to do go to El Paso, but said she gained insights that will help her as executive director of The Next Door, Inc., the Hood River and The Dalles-based social service agency that works extensively with immigrants.
“If anyone arrives here, I can support them in ways I couldn’t before,” she said.
“I would counsel agencies to be on the lookout for new arrivals of single parents,” she said. Often it is men who are being sent from the border to American communities, sole providers for one or more children, the mothers unable to get in or still in detention.
She knows of children who are being left alone without care while parents work; meanwhile, by policy, asylum seekers are told not to avail themselves of local services, such as insurance or child care, to avoid becoming “a public charge,” and jeopardizing their asylum status.
Hamada and Carlson witnessed up close the measures on behalf of asylum-seekers provided by organizations such as the one they volunteerd with: Annunciation House — which has 20 shelters in the El Paso area alone. Volunteers serve meals, process clothing and other donations and spend time with the refugees, many of them children.
“We regarded these people as our guests, and did our best to treat them that way,” Carlson said.
She said she trained herself to look at the bus ticket provided to refugees to a northern location such as New Jersey, and make sure the families had extra clothing suitable for a cold climate.
Hamada said that few of the asylum seekers from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were making economic asylum claims. Most left their homelands for fear of their lives and those of their children.
“The asylum claims we saw were absolutely viable,” she said.
Carlson said she got to know a Honduran woman who had supported her two preschool children on income from a small market stand, and had to leave when her landlord demanded she pay an unaffordable rent or he would kill her.
Hamada also met Guatemalan climate refugees, unable to survive on their highland farmland because of drastically altered weather conditions.
‘This is a man-made crisis, made by one man — President Trump,” Carlson said of the situation involving migrants who, under various circumstances, including asylum requests, must be detained at the border while awaiting placement. They heard first-hand the stories of families split up by ICE.
“These are all asylum-seekers, but separations happened,” Carlson said.
Hamada said they learned that “policies made at the highest levels affect children in adverse ways, and local communities are also affected.”
Referring to overcrowded cinderblock holding cells and insufficient food — ICE provides many detainees a limited diet of frozen burritos — “If we treated children that way at Next Door, we would be in jail,” Hamada said.
“It’s a matter of human rights violations,” Carlson said.
Carlson and Hamada praised the generosity and dedication of the people of El Paso, where churches, organizations and individuals regularly bring food, clothing donations, and volunteer in helping process asylum-seekers.
Visiting the bridge
They decided to seek out the bridge over the Mexico-U.S. border where about 1,000 asylum seekers were told by American authorities to seek shelter. The border meets at El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico.
Hamada and Carlson came back with photos of the bridge scene, and vivid impressions.
The people there slept on concrete and stood in the hot sun or, if they chose shade, endured falling bird dung under a pigeon-filled bridge underside. Carlson said her research showed that the pigeons’ droppings can cause varied respiratory illnesses.
“It was just inhuman,” she said. “Kids were being exposed to this.”
To search out the bridge, they crossed into Juarez, Mexico, without passports. Three feet over the border, U.S. Border Police approached them and said to re-enter the U.S they would need to walk a mile to another bridge in the Mexican city known for its high crime rate.
“Walk through Juarez, at 6:30 p.m.?” Carlson recalls asking.
When they reached that bridge — the Bridge of the Americas — they realized it was the actual “shelter” bridge. (As of press time, the bridge is no longer being used as shelter.)