A man from Central America who covered his face and spoke only in whispers because he feared death at the hands of drug lord emissaries.

A family from that same part of the world who had walked more than 1,000 miles with others seeking a chance at a better life in the U.S.

A man from another Central American country who said if he were denied asylum in the U.S. he would ask a judge to imprison him rather than return to his homeland.

As Eau Claire resident Mireya Sigala listened to the adverse situations faced by those refugees and others seeking asylum in this country during a trip last month to the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana, she saw not only their faces but those of her parents.

Juan and Carmen Sigala entered this country illegally in the 1970s from Mexico when Juan learned of jobs at Jerome Foods in Barron that offered the couple a better life. They eventually settled in Barron and became citizens, raising a family and making a new life here.

“The stories these people told me, they were so powerful and personal,” said Mireya, who spent Dec. 11 to 24 at the border port of entry into this country at Tijuana. “I am of Mexican descent, and as I listened to them, I thought of my parents, of the hardships they endured, of all they went through ... I felt I had to do something to help these people who also face so many challenges.”

Mireya is no stranger to helping others. The 41-year-old mother of three is active in El Centro de Conexion de Chippewa Valley, an organization that works to educate others about the Latino community and to provide resources to that population and activities intended to combine Latinos with the rest of the Eau Claire-area community.

She also is a member of the Joining Our Neighbors, Advancing Hope Immigration Task Force, a group of local residents who work on immigration-related issues, and she works for the state of Wisconsin helping resolve benefits eligibility issues.

The U.S.-Mexico border has garnered national headlines in recent weeks as a standoff between President Donald Trump and Democrats regarding Trump’s demand for funding to build a border wall has shut down some government operations as a much-publicized caravan of refugees made its way to the border.

As Mireya learned more about the situations faced by immigrants at the border, she decided she needed to get involved. She researched opportunities to assist and applied for a position with New Sanctuary Coalition, one of multiple organizations helping refugees seeking asylum. She was pleasantly surprised she was chosen for that work and was assigned to help educate those seeking asylum with the process of doing so.

As her airplane departed from Minneapolis and headed to the border, Mireya’s mind raced with anticipation about her upcoming adventure.

“I was excited to be doing this work but nervous about what I would find when I landed,” she said.

‘Daunting’ wall

The large wall at the U.S.-Mexico border at Tijuana is tall and imposing, the barbed-wire strung along its top is a menacing message against crossing there. The U.S. side of the border is a militarized zone, armed guards stationed at many points.

As Mireya approached the structure after landing in San Diego, Calif., and heading to the border, her nerves tingled with a sense of fear and oppression.

“Until you are standing there, you can’t imagine how daunting that wall, that militarized presence, feels,” she said.

Mireya was directed to work with refugees in the Barretal encampment, the largest of multiple camps of 2,300 seeking asylum gathered there after the refugee caravan was settled at the site. She was struck immediately by the crowded, Spartan conditions.

Hundreds of tents were clustered tightly together on the cement floor with little space between them. Thin, worn mattresses served as beds. Portable toilets and garbage lined the encampment, lending foul odors. The bathrooms were far too few for a gathering of that size, Mireya said, and personal hygiene basics such as soap and toilet paper were missing.

“It was hard to believe I was actually seeing people living in those conditions,” she said. “It is a cesspool waiting for some sort of disease to break out.”

Despite their tough situations, people camped there worked to try to clean the site, Mireya said, “and that gave me a sense of hope, that these people are trying to do the best they can.”

Real dangers

Gaining asylum into the U.S. is a challenging process that includes many conditions and steps, Mireya said. Certain categories of people, such as those with an education or specialized skills, tend to be granted asylum at a higher rate than the working poor, she said. Those seeking entry also need sponsors.

Most of the people seeking asylum know nothing of the process to gain it. Mireya and workers like her tried to help them navigate the system and provide them with as much information as possible. Those with attorneys working on their behalf have the best chance of gaining asylum, she said. Most who seek it are not granted asylum, and some decide against doing so and resettle in Mexico rather than risk being returned to dangers in their home country.

Many of the people Mireya worked with face very real danger if they return to their homes. Unfortunately, for many she helped prepare to seek asylum, that was the case, Mireya said. Stories of people who had fled their homes after being targeted by drug lords or gangs were commonplace, she said, as were meetings with people whose family members had been killed by those groups.

“Whether they are granted asylum is really a matter of life and death for some people,” she said.

Firsthand accounts from Mireya and others who have visited the border are especially important as people hear differing accounts of the situation faced by refugees hoping for asylum, said Eau Claire resident Joyce Anderson, who serves as co-chair of the JONAH Immigration Task Force along with her husband, Dave.

“We hear conflicting news about what is going on at those (border) locations,” Anderson said. “People are curious and compassionate about what is going on at the border, and they want to know about the conditions immigrants face.”

Better life

The longer Mireya stayed at Barretal, the more she felt tied to the people she was trying to help. Some said they had been there for several months hoping for an asylum hearing. All spoke of their desperation to make a better life for themselves, and in many cases, their families.

“The more I tried to help these people, the more I realized that this work is beyond important,” she said. “You cannot begin to understand their lives until you talk to them and get this small window into what they are going through.”

In many cases, Mireya said, simply gaining the trust of refugees was a significant hurdle. “With the lives many of them lead, they don’t trust anybody,” she said.

On her last day at Barretal, Mireya was recognized for her efforts with refugees there. The enormity of that work and the struggles those she attempted to assist overwhelmed her, and she lowered her head and sobbed.

The faces of the people she worked with flooded her mind during her flight home. Who would gain asylum? What would become of those who did not?

Since her return to Eau Claire, Mireya has continued to wonder about those she helped. She keeps in contact with some of them, exchanging texts and providing support as best she can. She and immigration lawyer Kara Lynum will share their experiences working at the Tijuana border site during a forum titled “Our Friends and Neighbors at the Border,” from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 31 at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 3214 Golf Road.

Her experience at the border struck a personal note with Mireya. She plans a return there in the near future, she said, and feels a calling to turn that work into a future career.

“Working at the border made me appreciate my life here in Eau Claire so much more,” she said. “Now I want to help others have a chance at that kind of life.”

Contact: 715-830-5911, julian.emerson@ecpc.com