A Conversation about the Border with Local Non-profit Founders

It’s been four months since President Joe Biden has taken office. During his campaign he promised to tackle climate change, forgive student loans, and provide effective vaccine rollouts for the COVID-19 pandemic, among other promises. While he’s delivered on some of those policies, he has yet to stop the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Although he has created a taskforce to reunite previously separated families, this has resulted in an increase of unaccompanied minors coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. 

In the past year, there have been record breaking numbers of children crossing the U.S.- Mexico border, with more than 18,700 unaccompanied children and teenagers taken into custody in March 2021. Those taken into custody are then held in prison-like detention centers, until they are reunited with their families. 

Enrique Morones is a local activist and the founder of Gente Unida, a local non-profit that aims to educate and spread awareness about what is going on at our local border. He works with Ari Honarvar, Vice President of Gente Unida and a Musical Ambassador of Peace who conducts dance sessions with refugees and asylum seekers in San Diego and Baja California. 

The UCSD Guardian talked to Enrique Morones and Ari Honarvar via Zoom to learn more about the work they do and what they believe should happen at our borders.  

How did you come about creating Gente Unida? How did the idea come about? Did you face any obstacles/hardships in creating it? 

Enrique Morones: In 2005–06 I formed Gente Unida. And the reason I formed Gente Unida was because 2005, that’s kinda when you started having this really crazy television, [like] Fox News… And you also had vigilantes on the border with guns, shooting people, they were called the minutemen. And I go, ‘That’s crazy, you have these white men out shooting migrants. That’s got to be against the law!’ So I started Gente Unida to expose hate talk, hate actions, saying we can’t be doing this type of thing.  

What makes the work worth it? Would you say you’ve seen progress during your work? Is your progress what motivates you to continue?

Enrique Morones: “The reason I do the work is because I was taught to love your neighbor and to promote love and to be respectful to people. You know I’m out there speaking, I get a little worked up and everything but I always promote non-violence. But I do promote, do not be silent. You cannot be silent… Being silent kind of means that you agree with what’s going on. And I’ve never been silent as those values come to me from my parents.”

Over the years have you seen any changes in what is happening at the border, especially with the effects of the wall? More children? 

EM: “The last five years, before President Biden, it was the worst. It was the worst ever. Because you have a person that in my opinion wasn’t qualified to be where he was. And for him to openly promote hate and lies and fear is very damaging. And when you sit at that particular spot in Washington DC you have the whole world’s attention. So for him to go out there and say these crazy things, hate words lead to hate actions. So remember when he first started, going down the escalator, he said that we — the Mexicans — were criminals and rapists and not of the best, and all of that stuff. I could not believe it. And then I could not believe how the media, of course Fox News is gonna follow him, but everybody else was following him. And I go why are you covering that? He’s talking bad about the people that come from Africa, the people that come from the Middle East, the Muslims. I go, why are you covering that? You’re promoting it. You gotta stop it.”

“I’ve debated Tucker Carlson and Hannity and Laura Ingraham and Bill O’Reilly. I’ve debated them all. And in my opinion I’ve defeated them all. And I know that when I’m on Fox News, I’m not an idiot. I know that when I’m on there more than half the audience thinks I’m the devil, no matter what I say…  I’m not gonna change their minds. I’m not trying to change their minds. There’s about a third of the audience that really, they’re supportive, ‘I like that guy. I like his ideas.’ And there’s about 20 percent or 25 percent that hasn’t made up their mind. That’s who I’m talking to. When I’m on those shows, because people go ‘why do you waste your time?’. Well I’m not wasting my time. I’m not gonna change Hannity’s mind. I know I’m not gonna change it. I’m not even gonna try. But there’s people watching that go ‘I didn’t realize that there isn’t a line for people to come in through the front door. I didn’t realize that all of these people are dying crossing the border, and many more are dying crossing into Europe.’”

In terms of policy, what do you think is the most important law or regulation we could implement? What can we do to improve conditions for those arriving at the border?

EM: “I think one of the biggest things you could do. Let’s stick with the media for a second. When President Reagan was President Reagan he changed the law because there was a law which was sort of like truth in advertising. Where you couldn’t just say something in the news whether it was true or not if you did that you would be punished as a station that doesn’t exist anymore. I think it’d be good if we had that again. When somebody says something that’s a lie, that that would get penalized. That would kind of stop them from saying so many lies. Right? Because it’s very dangerous and so you make up a story and you say it enough, people start believing it and so you start doing hateful acts. That’s one thing that could be done.” 

“But in terms of policy and so forth, I think the United States [needs] a more welcoming policy, similar to Canada. There’s about 200 countries in the world, almost exactly 200. If you rank the United States where it is in welcoming migrants, it’s around 25th… There’s around 250 million undocumented people in the world today that’s according to the United Nations. The United States has 11 million so that means 239 million… Those people don’t want to come to the United States. Usually you want to come to a country that’s similar to yours, similar language, culture. That’s only natural. First of all you don’t want to leave, but if you’re forced to leave you go to a country similar to yours. But a lot of American people don’t realize that and think that everybody wants to come here. Oh no that’s not true…”

“So one of the rules that should be changed, is having a more welcoming immigration policy where people can knock on the door, come in through the front door. You can check out who they are. Most of them have no criminal records, they’re coming here to work. That’s the way it should be… And people have to realize that and Canada has more of a system like that. And now we’re seeing it, with all of these children that are coming. The United States needs young people. The older population, [they] aren’t having as many kids, they’re dying off. This country needs young people. Like Germany needs young people. Some of these countries that have been more welcoming, it’s because they want their country to continue. So we need to be more educated about the reality of what’s taking place and let’s have policies that welcome these people. “

Considering that we’re in San Diego, do you think there is enough media coverage about the border?

EM: “When I was younger, there were only three stations: ABC, NBC, and CBS. That was it.  And those were real news stations. They weren’t giving you their opinion. Now it’s totally different. All the stations give you their opinion of this and that. And you have the two extremes you have Fox News way over here and MSNBC way over here. I try to stay in the middle. And you have access to more information, but it’s not really information it’s opinion so what happens is if you’re of this opinion you listen to those opinions and if you’re that you listen to that. That’s not healthy… I can see different opinions but there’s not different facts.”

“One of the problems with the community in San Diego or all along the border, or really the country. When people say stuff like ‘Oh I don’t like Mexico.’ or ‘I don’t like Mexicans’ or ‘Tijuana’ or whatever, one of the things I say is ‘how many times have you been there?’ Most of the time they’ve never been there. So I go, ‘Why do you say you don’t like it? You’ve never been there. You don’t even know anybody’… And most of the time they’ll just talk about something they’ve seen on the news …”

“My message is you’re saying these things but you don’t even know the people. You don’t even know … When you have these people promoting hate, people get affected by it and they go out there and they start [acting on it]. Like what’s been happening lately, attacking Asian people. Why would you attack Asian people? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s that ignorance. So the media plays a big role because hate words lead to hate actions.”

So you said that if we are silent and if we’re not doing anything then it means that we’re supporting all of this hate that is happening. What is your advice to others on how they can get involved? What actions can they take? 

EM: “If you go to an event and it sounds interesting, maybe they’re talking about the environment or working with the elderly or whatever it is in working with the elderly, or whatever it is. Go to them and say, ‘I had a lot of fun at that, and I’m interested in getting involved in working with the elderly’ for example. That’s one of the things that I learned is that if you see something you like the way somebody’s doing something you know try to find out who that is and maybe that’s something you want to try out. And maybe you won’t like it. That’s fine. Be open to these situations.”

“When people say ‘can one person make a difference?’ I wrote a book and the book is about the power of one and I say yeah one person can make a difference… [It’s] a story about a starfish and it’s about a little boy walking along the beach with his father and he’s picking up these starfish and he’s throwing the starfish into the ocean. So the father says ‘what are you doing?’ And he goes ‘well dad I’m throwing these starfish into the ocean because it’s so hot out here, the sun is so bright and the tide has gone in, these starfish are dying.’ And the father says, ‘yeah son but there’s thousands of starfish, what you do doesn’t make a difference.’ And the little boy picks up a starfish and shows it to his dad, and goes ‘it’ll make a difference to this one. To that one it won’t make a difference but to this one it will.’ And that’s the power of one because by saving that starfish who knows that starfish could become the next Malala. It could become the next Rumi. The power of one. And I’ve always believed in that philosophy.”

Next, The Guardian spoke to Honarvar, to learn more about the dance sessions she conducts with the migrant children.

How did you become involved in working at the border?  

Ari Honarvar: “I’m the founder of Rumi With a View and my life is dedicated to making and maintaining cultural bridges across war-torn and conflict borders…”

“When the Muslim ban happened and not a lot of refugees were coming here but at the same time the Border crisis was going on where asylum seekers from Central America were coming to the border but they were being delayed and they were not being processed by the CDP and immigration. So I started interviewing them as a journalist, those people who were coming, and the stories were so similar to what I knew from Middle Eastern refugees and from my own life, you know just fleeing from violence from a terrible situation. So then I was thinking maybe this isn’t, as I got to know more of the families, I wanted to do something more than just report the atrocities. So I started a drum and dance session for the migrants who were stuck and they were seeking asylum to the US. So I started that in 2018 and I’m still meeting with them via Zoom weekly so the pandemic made us not able to travel to Tijuana weekly, so we just switched to Zoom meeting.”

You mentioned your own experience of coming here as an unaccompanied minor. Do you mind telling me a little more about that? 

AH: “[In Iran, in the 1980’s] There were crackdowns on dissidents and a lot of people disappeared and were taken away to jail or worse being executed. It was a tense situation for everyone…”

“I was 14 when I left, and my parents brought me to the US and then they had to go back home because I have a sister and she was still in Iran… My parents had to go back but I got a  student visa and I was able to stay and that was very miraculous at the time. None of this could’ve happened.”

And have you been able to reconnect with your family since then?

AH: “Yeah so they eventually migrated. It took us 21 years before we were all in the same place at the same time but we were able to unite and then and you know eventually they got visas and Green Cards to come to the U.S.”

Can you tell me more about the dance sessions that you hold for the children? What kind of dances do you do? 

AH: “The whole idea is to serve the population that we are meeting with so… If we are meeting with an African group it would be the regional African dances. [It’s something] to mostly make the kids feel safe because they look at their parents and the other hotel around them everyone. So that’s just the very first part of what we do is just try to increase the capacity for joy.

“..[Once] when we were going there, at one point, the shelter pulled me aside and she said ‘even if you don’t bring any donations please do come. This really helps everyone to keep their spirits up.’ And afterwards we stay to chat with people who need a little extra support or they want to talk to us and each time you know, people have told me that they feel so much better after the sessions and the effect of this feeling lasts about sometimes up to a week, when we start the sessions again. Sometimes a few days. And that just really helps with this precarious situation that they’re in.”

Do you have any more memorable personal stories from this? Like seeing someone who is just really moved by the dancing?

AH: “Yeah every every session when we do our session all the kids, they come and say goodbye and we do make the love signs and we hug and blow kisses. And they’re so excited. I was so happy, and it was a bittersweet moment this past time when all the kids you know that some of them had been there for 15 months I had watched them grow up in this shelter every week. I watched them and we danced together and a lot of them got asylum and I was so happy for them and wait so we were all kind of teary-eyed and we were crying and we were laughing. [And I just tell them] ‘please keep in touch!’ And we just keep saying ‘I love you.’”

How did you think of the idea of using dance therapy for these children?

AH: “When I came to the US without my parents, one of the things that really helped me was dancing. It helped my depression and my anxiety but I didn’t have a supportive community that would hold me. And both things are really needed and when I came across Musical Ambassadors of Peace I saw that that’s exactly what they were providing. They were musicians who were into community building, and their form and their message really resonated with me.  So that’s how I started… So they’re musicians, I’m not a musician. But I can but I can do something similar and they were very flexible and welcoming on my suggestion that I would just dance with everyone as a way of healing and it worked out.”

Although such local work is being done to help migrants, we still need federal level policies to address what is happening at our borders. An important aspect of this is to stop the media from depicting migrants as “outsiders” or “invaders,” but rather, to share their true stories as to why they are migrating in the first place.

Photo by Jorge Aguilar on Unsplash.