Actors and activists with the group Harness organized a trip for their Hollywood peers to visit asylum seekers at a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, exposing them — and the public — to the true effects of U.S. policies on people fleeing deadly violence.

By Michael Quiñones
May 01, 2019 04:51 PM

America Ferrera is a cofounder of the activism development group Harness, along with her husband, Ryan Piers Williams, and Wilmer Valderrama.

On March 9, Harness partnered up with Families Belong Together, a nonprofit that assists those separated from family at the U.S.-Mexico border, to bring a group of actors, storytellers and activists, including Eva Longoria, Roselyn Sanchez, Gina Rodriguez and Kerry Washington, to Tijuana. They visited the Estacia Migrante shelter, where asylum seekers are waiting for their cases to be heard, explored a asylum processing station and spoke with lawyers and listened to testimony from refugees.

Not content with statements from the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security about what was happening with legal asylum seekers under the Remain in Mexico policy, these creatives sought a firsthand view of the situation.

Harness is redefining celebrity activism with the experience of its leaders and its commitment to a best practices model. The group empowers and amplifies the efforts of activists, volunteers and people on the ground. Celebrities make great citizen journalists because of their reach, but they must choose what they cover carefully, striving for a moral and legal clarity that transcends politics.

From this Tijuana trip, they offer more evidence of what might very well be a deliberate plan by the current administration to discourage immigration and asylum seekers through barely hidden cruel and demeaning treatment.

Here, America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama and Roselyn Sanchez open up about Harness and revisit about their trip to Tijuana, as told to CHICA editor Michael Quiñones:

Wilmer Valderrama: Harness became a safe space where we could come together and share ideas and support each other on how to be more effective as we go out there and continue to work. It always empowers the people who are really doing the legwork out there. They fight a fight most of us can’t.

America Ferrera: I’ve personally been engaged with what’s happening at the border for a number of years — starting back at the height of the crisis with unaccompanied minors in 2014 — and have visited the border several times in Texas.

WV: America and I have been showing up at a lot of the same events our whole careers. We’ve always made a really good partnership. [She joined the board of Voto Latino with him.] And away from the organization, we divide and conquer in many ways. We got together at my house, we had a big meeting shortly after the election. And from that meeting we got inspired to create Harness. It’s our labor of love. And also a critical need that we had to create community, and I think that’s why we funded the organization.

Roselyn Sanchez: When this whole situation started happening with the border — I have to be incredibly honest with you — I knew all about it, because I’m watching the news obsessively, so I got the story of both sides. You know, the ones that was presented by Fox and the one that would get presented by CNN. Two completely different stories. Through Eva [Longoria]’s friendship, it all started because she invited me to her house, and she had a small private gathering with Harness.

WV: Nowadays more and more, you have people wanting to get involved and not having a roadmap to join. And places like Harness really facilitate a place where they can go and understand how to sharpen their tools and learn what are their strengths. That’s what’s important. You gotta embrace what you’re strong at. Then you put in the effort to stand up for things that matter to you.

RS: [Eva Longoria said] I want you to come to my house. We have this group of people that is very private, but I want you to learn more about this border crisis in a more human way. We don’t have to talk politics. We’re going to talk about stories about women. And you are a mom. And as a Latina, I think it’s something that you should know about. You know, get involved. So that’s how the whole thing started. I went over to her house and while we were there for a couple of hours, we learned about the statistics, a little bit of the politics of it all.

The most important part for me, the shocking and the life changing part for me. It was hearing the testimony of a woman, she was from El Salvador. And what she went through and how there’s thousands of women just like her that are going through this experience. And she was blessed and lucky enough to find…somebody to sponsor her. But that doesn’t happen to everybody. She was able to tell this story at the house, it makes it incredibly impactful. But letting us know, I am one of the lucky ones, there’s so many behind me that this is not their journey. They’re still struggling even more than me. And that freaked me out enough…to be like, you know what, I just don’t want to sit through this. I want to be able to be proactive and I want to learn. I want to see it with my own eyes. And that’s how we decided to go to Tijuana and try to experience the whole thing.

America Ferrera: This past year when the asylum seeking migrants were being separated from their children and the crisis began to escalate, we as an organization have stayed engaged with amplifying the stories and the human experiences happening around this crisis. We really wanted to put together a delegation of artists and storytellers to go down and see first hand for themselves who was at the border, what’s happening and the circumstances that they’re living through.

Our goal is about educating and giving storytellers and culture makers experiences of social issues that then empower them to tell authentic stories through their platforms. There’s a lot of ways to do that. Like what I’m doing now, having experienced something firsthand and using my voice and my platform to tell that story. There are also several ways that artists can tell stories — through music, television, film visual arts — infusing our culture with an awareness. The power of art is so effective at creating awareness.

WV: So for us as artists, I think what we do really well is storytelling, and our responsibility is to create a real image, and hopefully, you know, facilitating a scenario where our supporters and people in general…and even the news can get a screen cap on what it really would be like to wear the shoes of a lot of these fellow brothers and sisters.

For us, it was more about understanding the situation. Secondly, what can we do. How can we help heal a little bit. Can we be storytellers? Can we create enough of an urgency for human help that’s critically needed? Can we create an image that people can hopefully synthesize and see, OK, this is not what I expected. And at the very least, I can send a blanket.

And to me, the goal is to really tell people, look, this is not a political issue. This is a humanitarian issue. Just like we help the many brothers and sisters around the world in many countries that need us. You know, this is not very different. Not different at all. This is a moment where we are called to be fellow brothers and sisters. Help humans in their moment of need. And however the process is, whatever the political process is … my priority is to prep people to see that this is a nonpartisan conversation…. That was the goal.

AF: I think that policy change comes after our hearts and minds shift and change. There has to be a will to do something before it gets done on paper. And to look back at what happened over the summer with family separation, once those images started hitting people’s TV screens and news feeds, Americans of all political backgrounds and affiliations stood up to say this isn’t who we are. But we can’t stand up and demand action if we don’t know what’s happening. And so getting the truth out there, telling the authentic narrative about what is actually happening is key to us demanding action that is concurrent with who we believe ourselves to be. So telling the story and getting the truth out in the storytelling is a critical piece of being able to do the right thing about it.

ON MARCH 9 IN TIJUANA

AF: All the families, mothers and children that I’ve met at the border, particularly on this last trip, were fleeing unlivable situations, extreme violence, and truly fleeing for their lives with their entire families, with other families, with very, very young children.

RS: I’ve touched the kids, and I just hear the testimonies, and it was unbelievable. Just grabbing my kids, walking for miles and miles and months. Kids that will get sick on you. They will get blisters. Kids that will tell you, mom, I want to go home, and you still do it, against all odds. It’s like a movie, it’s like, how do they do it? To me, that was the most incredible thing. How do they actually, like, I fell in love with this kid Jeremiah, three kids. It’s three brothers. The youngest one was, I believe, 2 months old. When the mom decided to take this journey, right? Because they were about to kill her husband basically. I couldn’t help thinking how do they do it. They know that they’re going to come to a country that is most likely going to turn them back because we don’t have a good process. They’re treated like criminals. Nobody wants to hear their reasoning of why they’re here. It’s not like they want to be here. It’s not like they’re like, I’m so glad to leave my country, my family. They leave out of desperation.

AF: This is their last hope, essentially. If there was another choice they would be pursuing that choice. But for so many of them, it’s a matter of life and death and the hope to save their lives and to save their children’s lives is what compels them to take these incredibly dangerous journeys with no certain outcome. When we met them in Tijuana so many of them had arrived at the border to present themselves in a completely legal fashion to exercise their international human right to present themselves for asylum and they are being turned away at our U.S. border.

WV: They’re vulnerable. I mean, thankfully the shelters, some of them are well-equipped, equipped of them, lend them a mattress for a whole family. Some of them lend them a tent for the whole family, and it’s literally a regular camping tent. It’s a small help, you know, but it helps them endure some of the elements.

But when it was raining and storming and all of that, you could imagine some shelters were not equipped for that. People were getting sick. When you walk in there, you hear and it’s almost like an orchestra. You hear people sneezing and coughing all over the shelter because you know, their immune system is down.

Some shelters have access to some kind of local pharmacist that lend them kind of the bare minimum medicine to kind of help cope with traditional illnesses, the flu, the cold and all that stuff. You have children, you have babies that are not even a year old and you know, they need diapers. They need formula, you know, and some of these shelters are sharing two bathrooms for 140 people. Imagine 140 people trying to go to the restroom or just showering in one day.

AF: The people we met with are waiting in shelters waiting to present themselves in the process of asylum. In the meantime they are incredibly vulnerable to the violence they were initially fleeing. The dangers of these mothers and children and families being further exploited through violence and crime as they sit at the border in Tijuana is only compounded when they are not allowed to begin the process of seeking asylum.

WV: There’s a lot of beautiful people that are trying to do what they can by helping some of the refugees to be sheltered [and] assist them while they wait for their fate. But it is a very dangerous time. Because they’re also met with hostility, you know, I a lot of refugees in Mexico. A lot of local neighborhoods are telling the refugees to get out. One of the shelters was burned down because that neighborhood didn’t even want them to be there.

AF: [A lawyer we met] talks of three young unaccompanied minors who she had presented to begin the asylum process in the U.S., they were fleeing gangs. They were fleeing violence. They were told they had to remain in Mexico while the process moved forward which the lawyer had explained was extremely dangerous for them. And they were forced to remain in Mexico and the three young men were kidnapped by the gangs they were fleeing. Two of them were murdered. One of them barely escaped, they were not able to find safety before their lives were taken. So there are very real vulnerabilities that exists and that are being compounded by the current Remain in Mexico policy.

WV: There is a lot of paraphrasing of news. When it comes to the national level and understanding what’s happening at the border. The only ones who can broadcast truth in this very moment are the ones who can say, Look, I’m gonna bring you with me. You know I’m not lying to you when I tell you this is what I’m seeing. It doesn’t come from a newscaster.

AF: In spite of what the current administration, current officials, U.S. officials are saying, there are people being turned away and not being allowed to present themselves at our border and are forced to wait months in very uncertain conditions.

WV: There were a lot of things we weren’t expecting. The way that they’re given a number. They had a number, you could take about two or three or four weeks, maybe two or three, four months for them to get called on that number. And when that number is called, they go up and they do a single file line. Then they’re taken to this place…basically a basement. And it’s super cold and they have people wait there until they can’t bare it. And then they’re forced to sign themselves out because it’s just like, I can’t have my kids in this concrete area freezing.

AF: [They] are being told to wait in a line of 3,000 names, which could take up to months. While they remain incredibly vulnerable to the violence they are trying to flee. What’s shocking is the discrepancy between what our U.S. officials are saying to us, what’s happening, through our policies and in our name as a country, and what is actually happening on the ground. That is the most shocking piece of it.

WV: There’s a lot of different tactics that are discouraging people from waiting out their asylum interviews. It’s just a lot of obstacles that are given to them. And it’s almost like you’re wearing people out until a level of desperation where they’re just going to either have to turn around or find another alternative. I think that’s just one example that people have yet to really discover.

AF: We know from our firsthand experience that the truth is not being told. The truth about what is going on is being hidden by the government and is not breaking through the news cycle. Americans need to see what’s being done in their name.

The reality of the situation at the border and why they’re there and what they are seeking and how were treating them is not breaking through the narrative. The same rhetoric just keeps being repeated over and over again, characterizing people seeking asylum as criminals or people trying to illegally enter and take advantage of the system.

WV: There’s real stories that are not being heard. And real interviews of people that are in really, really dangerous situation for them and their family of extortion and abuse and kidnapping and, and they’re not being heard, you know. They’re not really being taken seriously either.

My biggest urgency is to continue to encourage and inspire as many of our fellow brothers and sisters to see that there is another human being needing our help and then no matter what politics are where, what you believe or any of that, and no matter what side of politics you sit on, you gotta see beyond that and put your human hat on.

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