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Community groups unite to improve conditions at the border

When Jed Leano and Dave Roger visited a church-run shelter for US asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico in June, they unwittingly set into motion a wave of compassion that will crest Sunday, September 8.

That’s the date United States Congressmember Judy Chu, among others, will be on hand for a 7 p.m. benefit for Room For All, a charity created by Claremont City Councilmember and immigration attorney Mr. Leano and former Deputy Director of Community Services Mr. Roger to help improve living conditions at the Tijuana shelter.

The event, at Claremont High School’s Don F. Fruechte Theater, will feature a production of Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall by Upland-based theater company Ophelia’s Jump, with all proceeds benefitting Room For All. Admission is free with a donation. Go to opheliasjump.org or call (909) 734-6565 for information.

For the past decade Mr. Roger has volunteered in some of Latin America’s most economically downtrodden locales. The conditions at the Tijuana shelter, which in June housed 87 refugees—47 of them children—were jarring, even to him.

And since his June visit, that number has swelled to 163 people living in the three-bedroom dwelling.

“I think I saw more despair and depression when we went down to Tijuana than some of the other trips that I’ve been on,” Mr. Roger said. “We’ve done a lot of work in poor neighborhoods, but this time it seemed as if the people had that hopeless look. That certainly tore at my heart.”

The floors of the shelter’s three bedrooms were packed solid with twin mattresses, each home to an entire family and their belongings while they awaited their initial interview with US immigration officials.

“It is the most inefficient use of space that you could have,” Mr. Leano said. “There was barely any room for people to walk around.”

The duo thought bunk beds would help, so they drew up plans and commissioned a Mexican manufacturer to build a prototype, which Mr. Roger was set to inspect after press time Thursday.

Assuming it passes muster, they will use the funds raised by Room For All to have 13 additional metal bunk beds made. The plan is to install them, with new mattresses, on a future trip to the shelter.

Mr. Leano secured the participation of Ms. Chu, democratic member of the US House of Representatives for California’s 27th district, who will give the opening remarks at the benefit.

When Ms. Chu visited the border with Mexico, she said she was “horrified” by the conditions of the detention camps.

“These conditions are unsanitary, overcrowded, and unsafe,” Ms. Chu said. “Even the Department of Homeland Security’s own inspector general agreed that the conditions were unacceptable. This cruel policy must be ended immediately. But so long as Trump persists with his abuse of immigrants, I’m proud to have constituents committed to improving conditions. The organizers of this event represent the best of our country and I’m proud to stand with them.”

Beatrice Casagran, artistic director at Ophelia’s Jump, said activism is part of the theater group’s mission.

“We were founded with an idea that theater should be more than just entertainment, that it should at least make you think, and hopefully possibly help,” she said.

Building the Wall, which explores what can go wrong with immigration policy, seemed a perfect fit.

“It’s kind of a dystopian piece that takes a very dark turn,” Ms. Casagran said. “It seems kind of apropos for some of things that have happened, that these funds would go to these people who are legally and patiently waiting in very difficult circumstances for their petitions for their asylum to be heard.”

The natural next step was to secure a venue. Ms. Casagran contacted longtime Claremont High Theater Director Krista Elhai, a former member of Ophelia’s Jump’s board of directors, to see if the company might use the school’s facility.

Because the performance touched on more controversial political issues, Ms. Elhai asked CHS Principal Brett O’Connor to get approval from Claremont Unified School District, which was granted. 

Ms. Elhai stopped short of weighing in on current US immigration policy—for now.

“I try to stay apolitical when I’m representing the district,” she said. “But I did tell Jed Leano that when I retire I want to work with him. I’m very comfortable in Sacramento and Washington DC, and I’d like to get some more training and work on behalf of displaced families.”

Additional assistance arrived in the form of Claremont United Church of Christ married co-senior pastors Jen Strickland and Jacob Buchholz. The pair offered to help promote the event, and to host donations via the church’s tax exempt 501(c)(3) status, enabling donors to deduct their contributions.

CUCC was another natural fit. It has in recent months been outspoken in its call for more humane treatment of immigrants, and has even sponsored and housed individual asylum seekers.

“This is something that is very much in line with the vision and mission of our congregation,” Mr. Buchholz said. “To have a project that we could partner with more people in the community was exciting to us. So, we were happy to say yes.”

Ms. Strickland recognizes that the concerns at the border go beyond religious affilitation.

“It feels like a coming together of many different groups of people, from many different faith traditions, or no faith traditions, because I think we can all agree that the issue of immigration and what’s happening at our borders is something that we all care about as people,” she said. “This is a very concrete thing that we can do that affects the dignity of every human being: having a place to sleep that is their own that is clean and safe. Those are all things that we all agree every human being deserves.”

Mr. Leano and Mr. Roger are currently exploring other ways to improve conditions at the shelter, including a simple curtain system for privacy, storage units and basic electrical upgrades.

For now though, mounting Building the Wall and soliciting donations to get the bunk beds made and installed will take front and center.

“Great theater is something that causes people to have a conversation, and this is definitely that kind of theater,” Ms. Elhai said.

To learn more about the September 8 fundraiser, go to Facebook and search “Benefit For Room for All.”

CUCC has set up a Go Fund Me page for folks who wish to donate remotely to Room For All, with a goal of $7,200. It is at gofundme.com/f/dnsrhk-room-for-all.

If you are interested in donating time, money or expertise, email Mr. Leano at jed@jedleano.com for more information.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com