On Sunday, hundreds of people attended a protest against family detentions in Tornillo, Texas, where a “tent city” has been set up to accommodate unaccompanied immigrant minors, as a realistic or official path towards family reunification remains unclear. Among those protesting were a handful of actors and musicians. According to BuzzFeed News, Lena Dunham, Amber Heard, Constance Wu, Connie Britton, Sia, and others took a chartered flight from Los Angeles to El Paso and joined a caravan of other demonstrators headed to Tornillo.
The comments made by that cohort of stars ranged from activated—Dunham told BuzzFeed News, “this is a humanitarian crisis”—to the downright tone-deaf. Britton, who starred in Friday Night Lights, a TV show based on a book about a real-life west Texas high school football team, told the outlet:
“I’ve just been really horrified by the reports I’ve been hearing, by what’s happening at the border,” Britton told BuzzFeed News. “I kind of reached a moment this week where I was like, ‘I need to go see for myself.’”
Bella Thorne, who also attended the rally, said:
“I wanted to see it for myself,” Bella told BuzzFeed News. “I know there’s been a lot of crazy rumors going around the internet of what is or what isn’t happening.”
When this reporter pointed to the tents housing children a few hundred feet in the distance, Bella responded, “So fucked up. This whole American dream idea is kind of a lie.”
To offer your star power to signal boost a worthy cause is generous thing to do if you’re a celebrity, as you’re almost definitely not obligated to speak out on political issues just because you command the attention of thousands of fans. (Although if you were alien merely observing our the media landscape, you might assume differently.)
But reading about Thorne and other celebrities who’ve headed down to the border—home to millions and where daily life can sometimes clash with immigration policy, sometimes does not—to check out detention centers for themselves, like a personal fact-checking mission, drives me nuts. It’s as if the border crisis doesn’t exist, isn’t demonstrably true, isn’t a continuation of nearly 20 years of bad immigration policy, until they’ve borne witness to it.
To say border life—which encompasses far more than family separation and detention centers, but for the undocumented, can also include routine check-ins with the Department of Homeland Security, the ever-present threat of deportation, difficulties applying to jobs and school and housing—is probably not on celebrities’ radar is an understatement. The fact is that border issues have been a quieter story—before but even since the 2016 election. The national media loves to frame these issues as identity politics—stuff the pertains to the few, to categorical minorities—rather than U.S. policy issues that affect communities, businesses, and families in just about every corner of the country. That fallacy is rearing its ugly head at us right now, with every gut-wrenching story that comes out of places like McAllen and El Paso and Tornillo and Houston every day.
I’m wondering about what the role of celebrities at the border is. If Thorne is indeed on a fact-checking mission, who benefits from her reporting: Her fans, or her peace of mind? If she literally just figured out that the American dream is a nightmare to navigate—if not a straight-up mirage—what does that tell us about how much attention she and her peers have been paying all this time? How much longer can the border hold their gaze?
What happens tomorrow? Will they—not just celebrities, but lawmakers from Austin and D.C.—show up next week? How about the week after that? Heard, who was born in Austin, said that she was “literally and figuratively raised by and with immigrants in my home and heart and life.” If she hadn’t, would she have felt compelled to come?
Sia has pledged to match donations to Voto Latino, a non-profit organization that led a caravan of protestors from El Paso to Tornillo on Sunday, up to $100,000. Dunham’s Lenny Letter promises to match donations up to $10,000. Other celebrities showed up at El Paso yesterday to protest and didn’t make splashy headlines. That’s nice. Anyone who shows up and wants to do the work of protesting our government’s dangerous policies should be there, in my opinion. But there are an unknowable amount of people who show up every day, who will keep doing it when the Trump administration inevitably rolls out a flawed family reunification plan to get critics of ICE to pipe down. For them, news coverage isn’t a guarantee. And they shouldn’t have to depend on a famous person to get it.