After volunteering at the border, late-night staffers look to do more

Stand Up for Migrants charity show on Sunday

By Sandra Gonzalez, CNN
Copyright 2019 CNN

(CNN) - A summer volunteer trip down to the southern tip of Texas was no laughing matter for Ana Bretón, a digital producer at late-night show "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee." But she and others are hoping some laughter will bring much-needed resources to those helping on the front lines of the humanitarian crisis at the Texas-Mexico border.

Bretón is among those who will be performing at a charity comedy show happening on Sunday in New York City called Stand Up for Migrants.

Dulcé Sloan, known from her work on "The Daily Show," is headlining the show, set to benefit Team Brownsville, which provides food and supplies to migrants and asylum seekers.

The charity show is a continuation of volunteer efforts Bretón spearheaded at the start of the summer.

Last month, Bretón and a group of roughly 20 others spent time volunteering in the Rio Grande Valley, the center of much coverage and attention as the Trump administration pursues a strict immigration agenda.

Bretón is no stranger to McAllen, Texas. Before the group trip, she had visited both as a volunteer and to produce a segment for "Full Frontal" about asylum seekers. (The show on TBS, which like CNN, is owned by parent company WarnerMedia.)

She decided to go back after a haunting photo showing a dead man and child in waters along the border made headlines in June.

"I was getting a lot of private messages from people [because] they know I'm passionate about immigration," she said. "Everybody was sort of contacting me saying, 'What can I do? I need to do something.' And after answering a bunch of separate messages, I just said, 'You know, I'm going to put a trip together if you go and help out at the border.'"

Joined by co-workers from "Full Frontal," friends and acquaintances, Bretón and the group spent ten days working with the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center, Angry Tias and Team Brownsville.

"Being in New York, I just felt so removed from all of it and from everything that was happening," Colin Jakubczyk, a former "Full Frontal" staffer who'd never been to the Rio Grande Valley, told CNN. "Trying to understand what was really happening and what it's really like was one of the main motivations for wanting to go down there."

At the shelter, they handed out toiletries, organized donations and helped entertain and comfort children.

But during their trip, the flow of people seeking help ceased as the Migrant Protection Protocols, informally known as the "Remain in Mexico" policy, went into effect. The policy requires some asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their hearing. It led to at times empty shelters on the US side, several of the volunteers observed, during their trip.

"It was so depressing that there weren't more people, knowing that they were somewhere else that wasn't a positive place for them," said Cassidy Routh, who does graphics at "Full Frontal."

Realizing their efforts might be needed on the other side of the border, a group headed for the tent camps located in Matamoros, just south of Brownsville, to hand out 300 lunch bags they made. They encountered, Bretón estimated, about 500 people.

"The energy there versus the energy at the center was just so different," Jakubczyk said. "There was so much more uncertainty there and so much more desperation and you could really see all that."

Summers in Texas frequently top the triple digits, even in the shade. At the tent camps, Jakubczyk said, many people had no cover from the sun. At the centers, they would have had air condition, access to showers, legal guidance, clothing and food, he added.

"All those people there, I just wanted them in the shelter. I wish they had been in the shelter," he said.

Emotionally, the volunteers said going back to their lives in New York was hard because there was a sense of powerlessness and a desire to do more. However, Jakubczyk said Bretón kept people in "a positive place by talking about how the things we can still do after we leave."

The upcoming comedy show, which includes a lineup comprised of people who went on the trip and other comedians, is just the latest example of Bretón delivering on her vow find more opportunities for the volunteers and her network to help.

This one came together because someone from Caveat, where the show is being held, had seen information about their efforts at the border online and asked if they were interested in doing a fundraising show, Bretón said.

"I think there are a lot of really great people out there that we're lucky to know that are taking action, like Ana and our show," said "Full Frontal" associate producer Rachel Moss, who went on the trip. "We do a lot of really great things that I'm proud of that are more than just yelling into the void."

Bretón added: "Working on this show has turned on myself -- along with a lot of people that I know that work on the show -- into really empowered activists, which has been really special."

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