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Border policies unite artists for a concert and a cause

Lila Downs is one of the artists on the Lantern Tour, which stops at the Orpheum Saturday.Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The singer Lila Downs was born and raised in Oaxaca, Mexico. She still lives there, but she also has a new part-time home in Northern California.

Right now, she says, she’s not comfortable bringing Benito, her 8-year-old son, stateside.

“I don’t think it’s a good time,” she says.

Downs has some upcoming dates as a headliner in Toronto, Chicago, and St. Louis. First, though, she’ll join an all-star cast of singers, including Emmylou Harris, Jackson Browne, and Steve Earle, for the five-date Lantern Tour, which kicked off this week in Nashville and hits Boston’s Orpheum Theatre for a sold-out show Saturday.

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Conceived by Harris and Earle as a response to the Trump administration’s “family separation” policy for immigrants seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border, the Lantern Tour is designed to keep a spotlight on the issue in a chaotic time. Proceeds will benefit the New York-based Women’s Refugee Commission.

Each date on the tour features variations on the core lineup. Brandi Carlile and Mary Chapin Carpenter, among others, joined the Nashville gig; Graham Nash and Joan Osborne will perform at the New York City show on Sunday.

Speaking on the phone from Washington, D.C., this week as she prepared for the concert there, Downs noted that she hasn’t felt comfortable speaking Spanish in public, given the polarized American climate and the immigration flashpoint.

“Even here in D.C. you can see people looking at you, like, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” she says. “I guess there are much worse things that can be happening. But it’s a sad time.”

Michelle Brané, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Migrant Rights and Justice Program, says the underlying theme of the Nashville show was songs about home, “which is really relevant to the migrant experience.

“Steve closed with ‘Pilgrim,’ which was very moving, and entirely appropriate.” (“I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys/ This ain’t never been my home.”)

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The commission just released a poll showing that nearly 70 percent of voters favor allowing refugees to seek asylum in the United States. The Trump administration, Brané says, “has been portraying families seeking protection as a threat. We see, though, that most people are not buying that. People support continuing our traditions of providing safety and protection for people who need it.”

The rhetoric about “illegal” immigration has been frustrating to combat, she says. Doing so is part of the aim of the Lantern Tour.

“One thing we hear often from the administration and its supporters is that people should come here the ‘legal’ way,” Brané says. “We have a system in place that requires that you be at the border and then ask for asylum.

“I think we want to remind people that together we have a voice. Family separation became a top news story, and the administration had to change course because the public spoke out. We can’t stop there. The administration is now looking for new ways to separate families, to prevent access to asylum.”

The Lantern Tour was organized a few months ago, in the wake of the uproar over the family separation policy. The shows are taking place just as the immigration issue takes another spin through the revolving door of crisis coverage under this president, as he seeks to capitalize politically on the “caravan” of Central American refugees traveling north through Mexico to the border.

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Still, Downs says, the musicians need to keep speaking out, or the plight of the immigrants will slip out of view.

“People will move on to the Kardashians,” she says. “It’s the nature of US culture. I’m glad we’re doing this music. It always helps.”

She plans to perform three songs, including a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Dear Someone” and her own version of the traditional Mexican folk song “La Llorona” (“The Weeping Woman”). “It’s a very spiritual song that makes people connect to difficult times such as those we’re living in now,” she explains.

Each of the performers plans to address the audience about their own commitment to the cause. They’ll get a little help from the advocates at the Women’s Refugee Commission, Downs says.

“It’s important to know the law in order to change legislation,” she says. “But my position has more of a spiritual nature to it, I think. I sense that the music somehow makes a change in people. I do believe that music can transform.”


James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.