‘The Butterfly Effect’ Is a Youth-Led Movement Bringing Attention to the Thousands of Kids in Detention Centers

Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla

Thousands of paper-made butterflies have been spotted around the San Francisco Bay Area, in libraries, schools and city halls. Created out of everything from coffee filters to scraps of construction paper, the colorful winged insects collectively make up The Butterfly Effect: Migration is Beautiful, a youth-led art and activism project raising awareness about the 15,000 children who have been and are currently being held in U.S. immigration detention centers.

“They’re still all beautiful, and they’re still all human.”

“We want [migrant youth] to know that there are people in this country who don’t like them, but there are also people in this country who are welcoming to them,” Kaia, an 11-year-old from Alameda, California, tells Remezcla. “Not everybody here is saying, ‘Go away.’”

Kaia created The Butterfly Effect with her friend Lily Ellis, 10, earlier this year. After the girls learned how many young people were detained in immigration detention centers, they grew upset and wanted to share the statistic in a creative way that could elicit similar emotions of dismay in others.

“I feel like 15,000 is a really big number and, for me, that hadn’t quite sunk in,” Kaia says. “I kind of thought, ‘If it doesn’t sink in for me, then it might not sink in for other people.’ Maybe we should do something to show how much 15,000 is.”

The girls got together and began creating with their hands a visual representation that has since taken off with the help of their adult allies and other community groups and organizations. Each butterfly creation represents one child held in detention.

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
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“They fly free and they’re allowed to be themselves, however they want to be,” Lily, of El Cerrito, California, says of real butterflies. “Monarchs migrate between Mexico and California, which is where a lot of the migrants are coming from and each butterfly is different and beautiful in their own way, just like the kids and the families in the detention centers. They’re still all beautiful, and they’re still all human.”

“It’s being led by young people, and it’s for the young people.”

The detention of migrant and asylum-seeking children at the border continues to cause outrage in the U.S. Some lawmakers have reported poor conditions in the overcrowded centers. Thousands of youth allege they have experienced sexual abuse while being held at the government-funded detention facilities, and, according to a 2017 American Academy of Pediatrics report, detained immigrant children experience high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other behavioral problems. “Additionally, expert consensus has concluded that even brief detention can cause psychological trauma and induce long-term mental health risks for children,” the report reads in part.

In 2018, public outrage pushed President Donald Trump to sign an executive order to end his zero-tolerance policy, a controversial rule that resulted in thousands of family separations. Still, children continue to be detained.

Lily’s mother, Zoe Ellis, said she is proud of her daughter for using her voice to amplify the struggles of people who aren’t able to use theirs publicly right now. Last year, Lily and her friend Lauren Jones raised nearly $9,000 by selling chocolate and churros for undocumented families separated at the border. Ellis says she is also slightly embarrassed that in the U.S., in 2019, children need to be this aware.

Photo of Kaia Marbin / Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
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“Lily and Kaia have talked about the fact [that] without a gesture of friendship like The Butterfly Effect, the sadness for kids her age is that children who were forced into detention would grow up to hate America,” Ellis says. “That overwhelms me sometimes, that her and Kaia feel they need to reach their hands out.”

Kaia’s father, Seth Marbin, says she and Lily are working to connect with people’s hearts and change people’s minds. Marbin adds that he and other adult allies “have an opportunity to really help connect that to lawmakers and to people who can actually effect structural change.”

The project’s tagline, “Migration is Beautiful,” was inspired by Favianna Rodriguez, the president of the Center for Cultural Power. Led by artists of color, the organization builds the infrastructure and cultural assets to support artists and storytellers for social change.

“I am so proud of how these young women are organizing to defend the human rights of migrants who are seeking a better life, and especially touched to see them expand on the symbolism of the butterfly,” Rodriguez said in a statement shared with Remezcla. “The butterfly is an invitation for us to imagine the way in which migration is a part of our human experience.”

Courtesy of The Butterfly Project
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A partner of The Butterfly Effect, the Center for Cultural Power has helped to amplify the project’s work and aim.

“I think people don’t understand the power that young people have to galvanize other young people and to also hold adults accountable,” Kat Evasco, senior program director for The Center for Cultural Power, tells Remezcla. “What’s beautiful about it is the fact that it’s being led by young people, and it’s for the young people in detention centers.”

“Not all America is like this, and you will be free.”

This weekend, Kaia and Lily are organizing a rally in Oakland to express their solidarity with migrant children in detention centers. The demonstration, to be held at the Lake Merritt Amphitheater, will include their impactful butterfly art. Next week, the girls will be in Washington, D.C., where they will be displaying 15,000 butterflies inside the Russell Senate Building Rotunda.

At a butterfly count of 33,000, the friends say they will keep their ambitious project going until youth in detention centers are free.

“You will be free,” Lily says, sending a message to young detainees. “You have friends. You have people that care about you. Not all America is like this, and you will be free.”