A Texas Businesswoman Is Doing What the Government Won't for Refugee Children


The news: This is Mamie Salazar-Harper.

Image Credit: LexisNexis

For the past month, the El Paso, Texas businesswoman has poured her time, energy and money into a venture that could prove incredibly meaningful: building a home for undocumented migrant children.

Image Credit: AP

According to El Paso Inc., the home is Salazar-Harper's response to what President Barack Obama calls an "urgent humanitarian situation" at the U.S.-Mexico border. Since October 2013, over 57,000 unaccompanied minors from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have been detained crossing into Texas and Arizona.

Image Credit: Department of Homeland Security via Mother Jones

Details: The house is described as "a squat, white building" located off Montana Avenue in East El Paso and was formerly an abandoned correctional facility.

But in the hands of Salazar-Harper and her husband, attorney Thomas Randolph Rey, it has completely transformed. Today, it features a room painted with images of "princesses and anthropomorphic cars," with toys and giant stuffed animals covering the floor. It also houses a TV, multiple couches, a fully stocked kitchen and 76 beds with "a neatly folded towel" at the foot of each.

All told, the home cost about $20,000 to renovate and furnish, and the couple hopes to have it up and running as a non-profit in the next two weeks.

"Our community has been able to come together and mobilize very quickly to provide a real and viable solution to the problem," she told El Paso Inc.

Background: Salazar-Harper owns M Rentals Inc., which maintains defense contracts and does work on military posts across the country. But she also served on the Texas State Family and Protective Services Council from 2005-2011, so it's unsurprising that the issue of unaccompanied children would be close to her heart.

Her galvanizing moment came when she saw images of the detained youth sleeping on cramped cots and concrete floors in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's overwhelmed holding cells:

Image Credit: AP

"Mamie is like that," Maria Rizzo, general manager of a yogurt shop that Salazar-Harper also owns, told El Paso Inc. "She has a vision and overnight we are going to do it."

The problem: The influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America has frequently been met with hostility. Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) exemplifies the more troubling of these attitudes — earlier this month, he was photographed brandishing a machine gun at the border with Fox News pundit Sean Hannity:

More recently, he's summoned 1,000 members of the National Guard to "secure the border" at a cost of $12 million per month to Texas' taxpayers.

Besides the ludicrousness of paying armed forces to "protect" the United States from a bunch of frightened children fleeing gang violence and poverty, militarized border security is a leading factor in fatalities among migrants funneled into more dangerous reaches of the southwestern desert.

It's not something to be proud of: But Mamie Salazar-Harper hopes to revolutionize a solution.

The house she's renovated still faces challenges. Though she's enlisted a "small army" of lawyers and about 30 volunteers to maintain the home, she still awaits approval from Texas Child Protective Services. Even then, it's still a temporary solution: A slightly more comfortable stop on the inevitable road to deportation or, in lucky cases, reunification with family in the U.S.

But it's also a citizen-fueled remedy few others have tried — and that Governor Perry lacks the empathy or humanity to enact. If nothing else, it deserves our attention and respect.