This week, we learned that the U.S. has separated over 2,300 children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and placed them in chain-link cages, tent camps and other detainment centers. Audio circulated of crying children begging for their moms and dads, and allegations surfaced of border patrol agents kicking migrant children and threatening them with sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, President Trump reversed course and signed an executive order for "detaining alien families together," stopping his policy of family separations while allowing for indefinite detainment and providing no plan for reuniting children already separated from their parents. Those children include a 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome, and "tender age" detainees as young as 12 months old. The Pentagon has been asked to prepare additional housing for up to 20,000 children, while thus far, images of detainment camps show only boys. No one knows where the girls are.
Which is to say: if you're fatigued, you're not alone. To get some clarity, catharsis and—yes—comfort on the subject, KQED Arts checked in with 11 different Bay Area artists who work with themes of immigration and detainment. They spend hours pondering borders, laws, family aspirations, deportations, and human rights in their art, music and other creative endeavors.
We knew they'd have insight, and advice. We were not wrong. Read below for their input.—Gabe Meline
Musician and composer who builds instruments from objects left behind by migrants along the border
It’s been heartbreaking. Especially hearing the children crying in the recording, it’s unbearable. It’s something that's impossible to describe, the feeling it gave me. It brings so many images of suffering, and of the past, of history. I'm afraid that history could be repeating itself: we have the memories of the Jewish holocaust, and the indigenous holocaust, things that have happened to immigrants, black people, Japanese people in concentration camps.
But this is maybe one of the few times where it's out in the open, where it's visible what is happening. In general, as a society, we have become less sensitive to our intuition, and to our spirituality, and to our feelings of human beings. And I don't know why that's been happening. Seeing this so much in the open should bother anybody who's a human being.
The thing now is talk to representatives in your government, taking into account that this is an emergency. This is not a joke. Worse and worse things will happen if you don't talk to your government. Help humanitarian organizations that are supporting the children and the families. And to the artists: it’s about this, it’s about something that has a meaning. We're not in a time when we’re supposed to do art about ourselves and nobody else. This is a time when art is supposed to speak the words that politics and religion are not speaking.
Survivor of the Granada Relocation Center, a Japanese-American internment camp, knitter, and docent at the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond
I’m appalled that this is happening—that the president is so callous in how he is carrying out his programs. As a Japanese-American whose family was interned, we were powerless too, like those young children. I was 7 years old and I can still remember that long train trip going to this very isolated desert area and living in the barracks that were built by the United States Army. My father was sent to a separate prison camp from my mother and my siblings and I, and my mother was always sending letters to the government asking to release him. My father, it was really painful for him—he felt betrayed and ashamed.
During that time, there were people who helped us, the Quakers, our neighbors, but they had to do so quietly, or they would be marginalized. Today, it’s hopeful that we do see so many Americans speaking out against separating families. It took the American public’s pressure to get the president to issue an executive order.
I'm going to keep talking about my family’s experience, and to me it’s very important to support other groups that are being targeted by the government.
Musician and songwriter from Juarez, Mexico, whose recent album, ‘Arrullo,’ expresses the immigrant experience
My first reaction is to think that it is not possible that this is happening, but it is… it’s horrifying. I feel like in the past two years we get less surprised at what happens, and it’s sad that we are not getting surprised. It is alarming.
My advice for other artists is first to be informed, to really know what is happening, and reach out to organizations, and let them know that you are available, that you are willing to help. As artists we have such a visible platform that we can reach many people, and we should use those platforms, especially if you are a well known artist.
I can’t stop thinking about the children, and how every minute that goes by, they are in pain. I ask myself: what if that would have happened to me? I know the feeling of what it is to leave your homeland behind. I really hope that people know how much bravery is involved in this process, of leaving your home. I have so much admiration for the people who have this courage to leave their homeland, and carry all that sadness, and all that hope. They have so much love, and want the best for their kids, they are being good parents. It is disgusting that we are separating them, when we should be welcoming them.
Artist and educator who leads art workshops with undocumented Central American minors at Fremont High School
It’s the worst kind of nightmare for a parent. That journey is 3,000 miles of hardship. Knowing the back history and the violence these people face, only to reach the United States and have your children taken away by authorities—that is really hard to take in.
And social media is unleashing a lot of support for this kind of act. It leads me to reflect on how any country can support these kinds of actions. We need to step back and understand the suffering and fear of those who support these actions.
Art in different times has different purposes. At certain moments art is there to shake us up, and sometimes it’s there to gather us back. Right now I think art is there to create logic and reason rather than challenge it. More than anything, it’s important to speak out. We’d be surprised by who, in our immediate circles, our colleagues and family, think differently than us. I’m trying to find ways to have conversations with people who think otherwise.
It's been pretty horrifying. But one thing we know is family separations have happened before—with Native Americans, with Japanese families, or with Mexican repatriation in the 1930s. With the recent 'Sent Away' installation in our permanent history gallery, we've been paying attention to whether the visitors really understand, and if it's properly conveying the trajectory of racialized communities in moments of political and social stress. In my social media circles, I see people saying, "This is insane! This is not America! This is not who we are!" And I wrestle with it, because the fact is that this has happened before.
In the deportations in the '30s, people were responding to the depression. But the Mexican people deported were not relying on welfare as much as others thought they were. And today, when you hear that they're causing unprecedented crime, or taking away jobs from "real" Americans, being a drain on the system—that's not true, but turning them into a specter of those problems is easier than fixing the problem. It's been very disheartening looking at the pattern of how easily people can be manipulated in very simple ways. You take a feeling, you blow it up, and it obscures the need to delve into really complex issues.
It's a terrible moment. It's too easy to despair. You're only shooting yourself by despairing before the fight starts, so donate to organizations, and find those small moments to realize why humanity is valuable, and why we fight for humanity. Remind yourself why life is good.
Executive Director for Galería de La Raza in the Mission District, hub for San Francisco's Latino artist community
It's just appalling to see how the administration doesn’t value humanity, nor the families that are coming here searching for a better life. They're being used as pawns to push an agenda. I think our work is not done yet. We need to keep demanding that they close the detention centers. I think that's where we want to focus: ending the criminalization. We need to stop all profits made from keeping people in cages.
We're definitely contributing to the organized marches and protests being planned for June 30. We will also be at this Friday's rally in Embarcadero Plaza. We know that art plays a role in creating dialogue and engaging hearts, and we'll be holding a series of screen-printing demonstrations at these events.
The legacy of Galería and René (Yañez, the gallery’s co-founder) and all of the individuals that have contributed and created this space was to address these issues. This is history repeating itself. We've been dealing with the criminalization of immigrants for decades. The goal of Galería as an institution is to be a platform for artists to organize. The founders needed to create a community that allowed and provided a path for self-determination. They expect us to be out there.
Bay Area journalist and co-producer of the documentary ‘Rabbit in the Moon’ who, in 1942 at the age of 12, was sent with her sister Emiko Omori and their family to the Poston War Relocation Center in Arizona
The fact that they would implement this policy is so inhumane. There’s a great deal of interest now in what happened to us during WWII to us Japanese Americans. A precedent was set when Roosevelt issued EO 9066, and even though it’s been condemned as a big mistake, that precedent has been used by the Trump administration to justify some of the things they’ve been doing. So of course, I feel an obligation to speak out against what’s happening as something very reminiscent of what happened to us 75 years ago.
It’s happened with the travel ban against Muslims, and this general discrimination against people of Muslim faith or people from the Middle East in general. It’s part of the current of racism that’s been part of our history from the very beginning, directed towards people of color. Now it’s against people from Central and South America who are not white people. It’s a language that our president uses to reemphasize this bias against people of color. He refers to us as infestations, or awful characterizations like rapists and murderers. It’s dehumanizing for him to be using this language.
Children being separated from their parents at the border is something that I don’t think any of us had contemplated. To take infants... what’s the purpose in doing this? There’s no rationale for it. If you’re going to ask people to stand up and be counted, how many people are for this? Why do they justify doing this thing?
I belong to a group called Nikkei Resisters. Our slogan is “Never Again.” Detention and internment are really un-American and we need to speak out and say “It happened to us. And we don’t want to see it happening again.”
San Francisco songwriter (Hanalei, Great Apes) and schoolteacher who released the song “Cross Crossing” this week in reaction to abuses at the border
Separating families and children seems so immoral and deplorable, it's shocking, but with this presidency and this administration the bar has been so low it didn't completely catch me off-guard. And being a teacher, and given the population of my school, which is 85-percent Latino, it's something I've seen the effects of the whole time. For many of my students, the fear they were already facing rose drastically when he was elected, and now that fear has been validated. It's happening to them. It's disturbing and hard to witness.
The issue of separating families is so immoral to me that some sort of response, either though song, or donating, or protesting, or going down there volunteering with an organization that's trying to provide legal aid—anything you can do is a start.
Oakland songwriter whose song “Borderlands” tells of “a constructed order of things that decides what and who is more valuable”
What strikes me the most is how conditioned we are becoming to see people through the lenses of our fear, our politics, our scarcity mindsets rather than insisting that all people under the sun are treated with dignity and love. We are forgetting that we have the power to create systems that reflect justice and love, not fear and confinement. We are becoming dismembered from any semblance of connection to land, to spirit, to honor, to respect and instead bowing down to new gods of greed, patriarchy, racism—so much so that a child’s cry does not waken the heart to compassion. Or at least, this is my worry. For our souls, collectively.
What is happening is a reflection of what has been buried under the soil of what is now called the United States. The sorrow, the unheard cries, and histories ghosts are truly rising until we all wake to its truth. We must do better by committing to our collective memory—all of it—and holding accountable the leaders who do not. The privilege of forgetting becomes manifest in institutions that create walls separating families, unable to share with the public where our girls and babies are. This is about our responsibility to our children’s future and their safety and dignity by allowing the past to speak.
If Nina Simone’s call to action was "it is an artist’s duty to reflect the times," then we must cry out with each other through our art, together, to respond to this madness.
Najib Joe Hakim
San Francisco photographer and YBCA fellow whose current project, 'Home Away From Home,' pairs oral histories of 26 Bay Area Palestinian Americans with their portraits
My own family immigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s from Lebanon. Except for the details, ours is a very common story, which most Americans share. Refugees out of Palestine, my parents then left Beirut on a ship with two very young kids and $5 in their pocket. In the coming years, through hard work, education and uncountable sacrifices, we became thriving American citizens.
I hate to think what might have become of us had we not snared four of only 100 immigration visas. Would I be staring down a machine gun barrel held by a 20-year-old Israeli soldier? Would we have been caught up in one of the many massacres of the 20-year Lebanese Civil War? Would my kids now be desperately trying to leave Syria on a dinghy with their own children?
What I see happening today to immigrant families is the writing of yet another chapter of American history in which the country's values do not line up with its reality. When people say "I don't recognize this country anymore," they are expressing the profound contradictions between what we've all been taught about this country and what we see being done in our name.
We live in a new dark age in which civilian lives are dehumanized; science and nature are scoffed at; and atavistic fears send us scurrying toward our basest natures. In such times, we artists are challenged to help remind us of our loftier, sacred and shared aspirations.
Poet, educator, and founder of La Maricolectiva, a community based performance group of queer undocumented poets
This week has been a lot. I think it’s great that it’s getting national visibility and a lot of people are learning about these atrocities—I think it’s a really positive thing. People are blatantly stating that we need to abolish immigrant prisons. But for me, it’s more like, it’s always been like this so I’m not surprised. I’m just glad people are realizing the reality of how it is and people are mobilizing and opening their eyes to the fact that this is how it’s been for a lot of folks.
With immigration, everything moves so fast and it escalates after a short amount of time. I’m curious to see how it’s going to influence a lot of the writing that I’m doing, but I’m still processing. Organizations on the ground in Texas are doing really good work, they’re giving people legal aid, and I think people should support them. This is happening because we put this person in office and we’re accountable for these actions. If you’re standing in sidelines, you’re part of the problem.
Lina Blanco, Claudia Escobar, Sarah Hotchkiss, Kevin L. Jones, Gabe Meline, Nastia Voynovskaya and Kelly Whalen contributed reporting to this story.