When news alerts started featuring kids separated from their parents on the southern border of the United States, these four Latina moms knew they had to do something. Now they tell you how you can help.

By Sandy Fernández
November 15, 2019
Mendoza at the border fence in El Paso. Photo: Shayan Asgharnia

Paola Mendoza: 'I Want to Show How Strong Migrants Can Be'

An artist, filmmaker, and activist in New York City, she was a cofounder of the 2017 Women’s March in Washington before turning her attention to the crisis on the border.

Her fight

“'What is it that you do?’ I get that question a lot,” says the Colombian artist, who arrived in the United States at age 3. Perhaps it’s because she does so much. Since the start of President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, which resulted in thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, she has documented Central Americans traveling in a caravan toward the United States, rolled film while visiting the border with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and even perched an art installation—a statue of an anguished mother reaching for her caged child—on the Capitol Hill lawn to mark the policy’s anniversary. All while parenting a 6-year-old son. “I’m an immigrant myself,” she says. “So I do everything that I’m able to do. But at the heart of it, I tell stories of refugees and migrants at this moment in time when the American people are being told that they’re horrible, bad, dangerous. Because they’re actually the opposite: They are resilient. They are strong. They’re trying desperately to take care of their families. And to me that lines up with who immigrants have historically been in this country and why we want them in our country now.”

The mom effect

“Being a mother influences everything,” says Mendoza. “I get a lot of calls from people asking for help, and I think I carry that differently than I would if I wasn’t a mother. Obviously, there was compassion there before, but now the idea of what would happen to me emotionally if someone took my baby away—it’s what motivates me every day.”

What you might not know

“The first few times I went to the border, I was surprised by a couple of things,” recalls Mendoza. “The first was how militarized it’s become—the amount of border-patrol personnel driving around on the United States side who could stop and search your car anytime. On the flip side, it was beautiful to see the interdependence between the Mexican side and the American side. This wall that exists there and these policies that have been put in place to keep people separated actually have been unable to do so. They need one another to survive.”

How to help

“Donate to smaller organizations on the front lines, including Al Otro Lado and Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, both of which provide legal services. They are small and grassroots—I know them personally, and they’re amazing.”

Courtesy of Mónica Ramírez

Mónica Ramírez: 'I Want to Stand Up for the Vulnerable'

The civil-rights lawyer from Fremont, Ohio, is the daughter and granddaughter of Mexican migrant workers and has always used her skills to stand up for some of the country’s most vulnerable Latinas.

Her fight

“I had been doing work on behalf of immigrants as an advocate, attorney, and organizer for a long time,” says Ramírez, the founder of the nonprofit Justice for Migrant Women and also the cofounder of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas/National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance. “But the most recent border crisis is different—it is an acute situation. Unlike in the past, there is a criminalization of migrants. And children are being taken away from their families.” Along the way, Ramírez found herself going on delegations to the border to see how to best meet the needs of the newly arriving families, and also engaging celebrities such as Laura Dern, with whom Ramírez attended the Golden Globes in 2017. “In the past year, we have had to mobilize thousands of people, sometimes in a very short amount of time, to respond to and support the families,” she says. “Influencers are able to reach millions quickly, which has been invaluable.”

Parenting through this

Ramírez doesn’t shield the realities of her work from her 6-year-old son. To balance things out, though, she includes a healthy dollop of hope when discussing the immigration crisis. “I talk a lot about love and kindness in my house,” says Ramírez. “And with respect to child separation, I let my son know there have been periods in our history when children have been separated or taken from their families—such as with Native Americans or during the times of slavery. But it is also true that every step of the way, people were fighting—and still are—to make things better, end those practices, and get justice.”

What you might not know

“This work isn’t just about the border,” says Ramírez. “Immigration affects places in the interior of the country as well. For instance, when an anti-immigrant law went into effect in Alabama, kids and families disappeared overnight because they left the state out of fear. That caused a lot of trauma in the classroom for children who wanted to know where their friends had gone.”

How to help

“My advice is to get local. There are people across our country who are doing this work every single day, and they need volunteers and support—people to show up,” says Ramírez. “And if you want to donate, go to ToImmigrantsWithLove.com. The website lists many different organizations fighting to keep families at the border together.”

Deborah Zeolla Photography

Carolina Rubio-MacWright: 'I Want to Empower Immigrants'

This self-described #momartistlawyer from South Orange, New Jersey, is using her triple-threat talents to empower immigrants in everyday ways.

Her fight

Not that many people go to art school and law school. But the Colombian-born Rubio-MacWright did exactly that. The two were surprisingly complementary, she discovered. “I realized that my art was all about the law—the loss of freedom—and showed it to my law-school friends,” she remembers. “I found it touched them in a way our regular coursework hadn’t.” Today, her nonprofit, Touching Land, brings visibility and legal empowerment to undocumented immigrants by bringing them together with some of their more privileged peers in spaces usually out of reach for them, such as pottery studios and cooking classes. “The idea is to build community and create spaces where people can be exposed to others,” she says. “Many studies have discovered that all people really need to do in order to dispel bias is to interact with those they’re prejudiced against. And I’ve seen that. When I went to law school in Oklahoma, I was the only Latina in my class. I was able to change a lot of people’s views just through our interactions.” Of course, practicalities are taught too. For instance, at one of her cooking classes for food-delivery workers, all leave with small cards summarizing their legal rights.

The mom effect

“When I started offering ‘Know Your Rights’ clay workshops, I targeted moms because I know how lonely and hard the role is, especially as an immigrant,” says Rubio-MacWright. “Once the zero tolerance policy hit last year, I started taking female lawyers down to the border and crowdfunding to make sure those babies—who are no different from my babies—were safe.”

Parenting through this

Rubio-MacWright understands that kids have different levels of understanding, and that’s okay. “My 5-year-old doesn’t get why kids are in jail—I’ve tried to teach him that some laws are unfair,” she says. “But my 8-year-old gets it. Last July, I left my kids for a week to work in a detention center. I told my oldest, ‘I’m so sorry.’ But she said, ‘No, those kids need you.’”

What you might not know

“As horrible as the situation is, there is still joy. For example, at the southern border of Texas, there are moths everywhere. Once, a detained 6-year-old girl saw one, pointed, and said, ‘A butterfly!’ with this amazing smile. That moment lit things for me very intensely. So much had been taken from her, but there she was, smiling. Joy is an act of resistance. They can’t take it away.”

How to help

“The biggest impact stems from everyday actions in your community. Are you paying people properly? Are you telling others your immigrant story? That’s one way that you can show up consistently and not just once, when it’s most convenient.”

Collins outside a shelter in Tijuana. Photo: Valorie Darling

Elsa Collins: 'I Want to Spread Empathy'

Through This Is About Humanity, an organization formed with her sister and a close friend, the Los Angeles–based activist turned a network of A-list friends and colleagues into an army for doing good on both sides of the border.

Her fight

For Collins, who was born in San Diego and lived in Tijuana until age 16, the border isn’t synonymous with crisis—it’s home. “I grew up there, crossing it daily,” says the Mexican-American mother of three. “It’s such an amazing and vibrant place.” So when the zero-tolerance policy hit, Collins—a former political strategist and the founder of a company that helps individuals partner with good causes—took it personally. “The idea that my home was the location of so much trauma, it was like an injury to my soul,” she says. Her first thought was that she would fill her car with donations and take them to the border. She put out a call to her contact list. “We literally ended up with an Amazon warehouse!” she laughs. Weeks later, when it became clear that this activism should become a nonprofit, she named it after a message she’d once written on a protest sign: “This Is About Humanity.” “Our work is completely outside of the political spectrum,” she says. “It’s about being human.”

Parenting through this

“I hear from parents all the time, ‘I don’t want to scare my kids. I don’t want them to feel as if that could happen to them,’” says Collins. “But the only way to teach empathy is to help kids imagine how these things might feel. We need to equip our children so this doesn’t happen again.”

How to help

“Through ImmigrationAdvocates.org you can search for nonprofits that provide free or low-cost immigration legal services,” says Collins, who also sells items on TheLittleMarket.com to support shelters in Mexico. “A lot of them could use help with interpretation or translation services.”

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