New Play Hopes To Humanize The Plight Of Immigrant Kids Seeking Refuge In The U.S.

CNP Project/Workshop “Shelter” CREDIT: RAFAEL HERNANDEZ
CNP Project/Workshop “Shelter” CREDIT: RAFAEL HERNANDEZ

A new theater production hopes to soften the vitriol directed at the immigrant children who travel hundreds of miles on their own to reach the United States.

About two years ago, thousands of Central American children began showing up on the southern U.S. border. Border agents were overwhelmed by the endless stream of toddlers and children, most of whom were under the age of 12 and didn’t have any parents or guardians with them.

Politicians seized on the dramatic surge, claiming that lax immigration policies under the Obama administration were to blame. Some immigration restrictionists argued that desperate children shouldn’t be allowed to cross the border because they could spread disease. Others went so far as to block buses to prevent terrified immigrant families from settling in their cities. And the activists who came to the rescue were sent death threats.

Lost in the chaotic anti-immigrant fervor, however, are the individuals stories of children and teens who escaped the dangerous situations in their home countries for a better life here.


Many kids from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras went through harrowing journeys to get to the United States — only to wind up in cold shared detention center cells colloquially called hieleras, or iceboxes, while awaiting their court proceedings.

The California Institute of the Arts, or CALArts, will bring some of those stories to life as a theater performance and accompanying documentary project exploring the “voices of the people behind the news,” according to a press release.

CNP Project/Workshop “Shelter” CREDIT: Rafael Hernandez
CNP Project/Workshop “Shelter” CREDIT: Rafael Hernandez

The production, called “Shelter,” will provide a look into unaccompanied children’s experiences as they encounter caseworkers, border agents, and lawyers. Marissa Chibas, the CALArts faculty member who wrote “Shelter,” gathered that material through interviews with high school students and immigrant rights volunteers in the Los Angeles area.

The project has a bilingual component, with two different productions that are “very visual and physical so if an audience only speaks English or only speaks Spanish, they’ll still get it,” Chibas noted. The first production will be held indoors at CARECEN, an immigrant rights advocacy group, with seven chairs and seven actors. But the second production will be set outdoors in a East Los Angeles-area park, where a 20-foot shipping container will evoke the experience on La Bestia, the deadly northbound train that migrants jump on to quicken their journeys to the United States.

Moriah Martel, a CALArts actress who will take on several roles in “Shelter,” said that bringing these stories to the stage could have a powerful impact. In an interview with ThinkProgress, she said she hopes the play may make it easier for people to grasp the ongoing border crisis with “lasting awareness and empathy.”


“When the experiences are presented to an audience especially through theater, which is such an immediate art form, the emotions that it’s able to create — if it’s done effectively — can create a lasting impression where an audience then feels more of a responsibility or involvement in the stories that are being told,” Martel said.

If you’re not directly involved in their situation, there can still be such a distance that these large, large numbers are each of them individuals.

For Emilio Garcia-Sanchez, another CALArts actor who will play various roles in the play, the goal is to help audience members understand that these kids are seeking an “American dream” that involves getting “sanctuary in the U.S.”

“It’s sad to see the current laws that make it difficult for these kids who are already on this impossible trek and for them to be sent back,” he added. “I really hope that people who walk away [from this play] will have a new definition of ‘illegal aliens.’”

Violence exploded in the three Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras soon after a gang truce, brokered by the Salvadoran government, began to unravel in 2013. Particularly in El Salvador, murders rose to about 15 a day by January 2015. That drove many Central Americans, facing imminent death threats, to flee to the United States in search of asylum, a form of humanitarian relief available to qualified seekers who arrive at the border through a port of entry. According to a 2014 United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) report, almost half of all children interviewed shared experiences of having been personally affected by drug cartels and gangs or by state actors.

The United States’ response to the heightened level of violence in those countries has offered some relief — albeit at a snail’s pace. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced a plan to allow more people who may qualify for refugee status to enter the United States without having to make the treacherous journey. But under a previous iteration of that program, which was aimed specifically at children with legal parents or guardians in the United States, just five children were approved.


And now, thanks to another increase in the number of immigrants appearing on the southern border, the Obama administration is re-upping its commitment to enforce current immigration laws. Immigration agents are targeting Central American mothers and children who crossed the border after January 2014 for potential deportation proceedings.

“There’s a lot of this sense that this isn’t our problem, but it’s on our border so it is our problem,” Chibas insisted. “There are ways in which we share the legacy of the violence that exists in Central America that we’re integrally a part of.”

“Shelter” is not the only art performance to force people to confront the plight of people fleeing for safer places. Across the Atlantic Ocean, at least two high-profile artists, Ai Wei Wei and Banksy, are using art to bring the growing refugee crisis in Europe to light. Banksy has used his graffiti artistry to bring attention to the “jungle camps” at Calais, France. And Ai recreated the photo of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, to keep attention on the continued refugee plight. He also recently produced an installation that wrapped 14,000 life vests used by refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea on the facade of Berlin’s Konzerthaus.

Art can have the benefit of helping these stories hit home for viewers who don’t feel immediately connected to the situation at hand.

“If you’re not directly involved in their situation, there can still be such a distance that these large, large numbers are each of them individuals, so I hope that the project can bring that kind of empathetic awareness to the situation,” Martel said.