Amber Heard On The Border Crisis, Growing Up In South Texas & ICE Checkpoints

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Photo: Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images.
Amber Heard, an actress and activist, who grew up in south Texas, writes about her connection to the border crisis and what we can do right now.
The US southern border is my home.
I was raised in south Texas on my dad’s construction sites, and spent my entire childhood crossing the border. I watched my father as he worked alongside the 20 or so men he employed, almost all immigrants, labouring under Texas’ notoriously brutal sun, building and painting houses.
I spent my summers, evenings, and weekends on these sites, listening to the stories of the lives of the people who would essentially comprise what I considered my extended family. As the daughter of hardworking parents with full-time jobs, I spent much time under their care. Their love and guidance has left a valuable imprint on me.
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I remember escaping dad's hunting trips a few miles north of the border and walking across that border to wander around the land on the other side, in Mexico. It was a different time then, and some of those border cities once so familiar to me are hardly recognisable in the wake of the cartel's influence. But one thing hasn’t changed: the spirit of the human beings who would give their lives for the chance to be able to cross back over for an opportunity to provide a better life and future for their kids. I remember seeing the faces of those on the southern side of the line, as I would freely cross back. Their fate seemed to be sealed behind a fence — one that I had the blind luck of being able to cross due to the accidental geography of my birth.
Having been born north of this proverbial line in the sand, I have the privilege to be able to speak up on behalf of so many who can’t.
Earlier this month, I faced backlash for a tweet I had sent warning people about an ICE checkpoint in Hollywood. I have only had social media for about a year, and I am still catching up to all of its nuances and subtleties, and as a public figure I know how easily it can be manipulated. I am aware that many people believe my statement was tone-deaf for implying that undocumented people work solely as housekeepers, nannies, and landscapers. I can’t entirely correct my mistake. But I would be disappointed if it overshadowed the needs of those who I’m fighting for and whom I care about.
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When I sent out the warning about the ICE checkpoint, I was speaking specifically about my neighbourhood — where I had never seen such a checkpoint before. Undocumented workers make up nearly 6% of California’s population and 10% of the workforce, and nearly a quarter of the country’s undocumented immigrants live in the state. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, they work predominantly in agriculture, construction, and manufacturing.
Many people I know personally work in jobs where they don’t have to prove their immigration status, many of which are service jobs. I know so many people whose lives would be affected. There is no shame in working with your hands — as a daughter who grew up watching her dad doing manual labor my whole life, I see no shame in cleaning or building a home.
People in California who aren’t thinking about this, and who are comfortable and safe being documented because they were born here — that’s who I was trying to reach. A lot of people here employ someone in their homes whose immigration status they do not know. I wanted this to be a call to action, a wakeup call.

Having been born north of this proverbial line in the sand, I have the privilege to be able to speak up on behalf of so many who can’t.

Amber Heard
Trump’s policy of separating families so close to my hometown in Texas is an assault on human rights and the global reputation of the United States. Even though he’s issued orders attempting to undo the policies (and the subsequent backlash) that he himself put into action, there are still families being detained together in jails, children unaccounted for, and thousands will be separated indefinitely.
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Effectively, this does nothing to assuage the damage done to thousands upon thousands of lives, nor does it address the issues that caused this already broken system to be shattered in such a horrifying way.
Watching Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and others try to justify the zero-tolerance policy is heart-wrenching. This policy, and its senseless defence, isn’t just supreme moral cowardice; it utterly fails to represent the basic principles this nation was founded on and what it means to be a conscious, ethical human.
As a woman who has advocated for legislative change by translating for and interviewing migrants as part of various research missions, I have heard the voices of many people whose lives have been harmed by attitudes and policies like these. Through my work with Amnesty International, I’ve sat through deportation trials, I’ve been to jails, and I’ve been to detention camps.
Migrant women are double victims to the process. They’re often targets of abuse and sexual assault at the hands of smugglers, as well as when they’re in US custody. I’ve talked to many women in deportation camps who had visible signs of abuse, like bruised lips and black eyes. So of course they’re skeptical when an official-looking white guy from the US with a badge comes up to them. And then when they’re arrested, they’re traumatised all over again.
However, I found that many of the women were more comfortable speaking with me, and so I listened. I collected their stories and translated when needed. When I would ask what they most needed, the most common response was: baby formula. So many of these women couldn’t give breastmilk; they had starving babies and asked for nourishment above everything else. That is something that never leaves you.
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Back during my research missions, so many people opened up to me and told me their stories. But on my last trip, you couldn't even see the detainees or detention centres, and you couldn't cross the border the way we used to. When I was last there a few weeks ago to show my solidarity, Border Patrol told us we were breaking the law by attempting to cross the border. I asked why and no one could give me a straight answer. That didn't seem like the America we talk about when we talk about our ideals.
People who migrate here make extreme sacrifices; they save up all their money and work so hard to fulfil this one hope, this one wish — I've known this to be true ever since I rode my dad's pickup truck across the border way back when I was a little girl. Today, I look out over that hot, hellish terrain — 100-plus degrees in the desert with no shade and no refuge — and I think about their brutal journeys.
I am disgusted by all of it. The system is broken. It was broken even back when I was a little girl.
By passing the buck, pointing the blame at anyone but themselves, and otherwise shirking any moral accountability, this policy’s defenders do nothing to alleviate a gross affront to human dignity at its most fundamental level.
The fact remains: We are actively subjecting some of the world's most vulnerable — homeless children —to unfathomable cruelty and apathy. The administration is giving immigration officials increased power to carry out traumatic home raids on people who live here, work here, pay taxes, and are contributing to their communities. Classifying people as illegal or alien, using words like infestation, is eerily similar to Nazi Germany.
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I invite Ivanka and Melania Trump to my hometown, where I grew up, so they can see for themselves the conditions at the border.
I encourage Jeff Sessions should go down to the border himself and spend 15 minutes there. Even from the comfort of his car, he should look out the window or talk to one person.
I implore President Trump to continue to push for full comprehensive immigration reform that reflects everything our nation has fought so hard to earn and protect. There needs to be comprehensive legislative reform from the ground up.
Our government has the right to decide who can enter the US. But it has a duty to give asylum to people fleeing persecution and war. And we cannot allow the Trump administration to destroy people’s lives and human rights in our name.
All of us who were born on this side of the line have a responsibility. Please call your representative and enact one of your most basic American rights to have your voice heard at this crucial time.
I tweeted a list of representatives’ contacts and their stance on Trump’s executive order:
If you’re a young woman, there is more you can do than you might think. You can talk to people in your community; have these conversations with your friends. If you live in a community with a large migrant population, link up with a local nonprofit group. Especially in the Southern U.S., there are a lot of grassroots organisations helping those struggling under this system. Many of them need help in the smallest ways, whether it’s through your volunteer work or donations. Make your voice heard on social media, organise demonstrations, and use your phone for good.
When I was a child, I knew how unfair it was that I could go back and forth on the border as I pleased while others could not. It saddened me. Thanks to those lucky few miles, I wound up with a completely different fate. It has made me acutely aware of how much work we have left to do.
There is still hope. Our voices have been heard, and they will be heard. Don’t give up the fight.
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