A new documentary series, Borderland, premiered on Al Jazeera America this past month. This four-part series showed the journey of six people, three men and three women, who traced the footsteps of three people who died trying to enter our country. The six were from different age groups and political backgrounds: liberals and conservatives, old and young, affluent and working-class. They had strong opinions about illegal immigration, ranging from forbidding immigration to completely open borders. First, they saw the situation at the border itself, went with the Border Patrol, looked through the fence at the border, and saw the special morgue where the bodies of those found in the desert are kept. The six then split into teams of two that took the case of a person found dead in the Arizona desert.
The next part of their journey took them to the countries of origin of the case handed them. One pair went to El Salvador to find the family of a 13-year-old boy named Oscar. Another went to Guatemala to find the family of a young woman who died in the desert. A third went to southern Mexico to find the family of another young woman who did not survive the trip. These encounters brought the pairs in contact with the culture and society of origin as well as the family of the deceased. In each place, an overwhelming sense of despair and hopelessness about the future lead these people and thousands more to make the hazardous journey. One pair visited a classroom of elementary school students, all of whom knew someone who is in the United States now, and knew the hazards and possible death that awaited them on the journey. Each one of them held up his or her hand when asked if they would want to make the trip themselves someday.
Then, the participants started back home, joining other immigrants using the same route. It involved border crossings in southern Mexico that were hazardous in themselves, and the constant threat of ambush shadowed their every step north. Remarkably, a number of women were making this journey with small children. The participants were astounded that these vulnerable people would take such horrible risks to find a better life for themselves, in spite of experiencing what the people were leaving. As they got aboard a cargo train for a precarious ride on the roof of a boxcar, they were amazed at how little the passengers focused on their immediate danger and instead celebrated the hope of reaching their destination.
After a short train ride, they visited the state on the western coast of Mexico where most of the illegal drugs arriving in the United States originate. They accompanied Mexican soldiers on a raid of marijuana plantations, marveling at the technology being used to grow the crops, and the danger they faced if their adversaries decided to resist the raid. The sad story is that all of the routes used by undocumented immigrants into the United States are controlled by drug lords who extort money from them as they pass through and who demand they carry product with them across the border.
The last leg was the worst: a brutal walk through the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. Here the migrants face daily temperature differences of 50° between day and night, as well as shortages of food and water. If a migrant falls behind, his coyote (guide) will leave him or her behind, because they deem that person’s life is expendable. Many die of exhaustion, starvation, hypothermia (too cold), and hyperthermia (too hot). The group of six only lasted two short days in the desert before rescue, and covered only 10 miles. Many die on the third day after their departure from the last town in Mexico on the 70-mile hike to the Tucson area.
The six people were changed by their journey, but they did not end up in agreement. At least they were able to form their opinions from fact and experience rather than prejudice and assumption. The journey helped humanize the plight of undocumented immigrants for the six. Perhaps that is a lesson for all of us: to always seek the truth without presumption, and to always see the human dignity of everyone.
Originally published in The New WinePress, June 2014