Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Immigration Reform and "The Undocumented"

 Clemencia holds up a photo of her husband, Josefat. He disappeared in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. 
photo courtesy of www.theundocumented.com

It's a safe bet that as the United States Senate considers a bipartisan bill this week to reform the nation's immigration laws, a Mexican national will die in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona in an effort to walk into the United States.

According to the human rights group, No More Deaths/No Mas Muertas, 179 migrants' remains were found last year in Arizona's border counties. These are men, women and children who risked everything for the American Dream, including their lives. While fewer Mexicans are attempting to enter the United States, the number of people perishing in the desert while trying is on the rise.

Filmmaker Marco Williams documents the plight of these migrants in his movie "The Undocumented. " Anyone with an opinion about immigration to the United States should watch this brutal film, which puts a human face on a polarized debate.  It is available at the pbs.org website through the end of the month and also on the PBS app.

Four hundred and seventeen border  crossers died trying to enter the United States in 2009, as compared to 9 deaths in 1990 and 201 in 2005,  according to statistics compiled by the United States Border Patrol.  Most of those deaths take place in the Arizona section of the Sonoran Desert, the hottest of North American deserts. Immigration researchers say the reason for the increase in deaths is that the United States in 1994 tightened crossings in urban areas, such as El Paso, Texas and San Diego, California. This so-called funnel effect left migrants facing remote sections of the desert to gain access to the United States.

                                                            (Mexico/Arizona border)

Williams painstakingly tells the stories of families who lose loved ones in the desert, particularly during the unforgiving summer months, where nighttime temperatures reach 100 degrees and water is scarce. He follows US Border Patrol agents as they discover the dying and the dead in the desert.  He follows the staff of the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office and the Tuscon office of the Mexican consulate as they try to track down the identities of the discovered remains, using for clues torn clothing and underwear,  scraps of papers found in pockets, and worn shoes.

Finally, Williams' narrative travels to Mexico itself, as loved ones try to face the loss of their loved ones, as they pray for and bury their dead. Through it all, the viewer learns the individual life stories of people who died in their efforts to reach the United States.

The narratives weave together slowly and powerfully, with neither polemic nor politics.

Sixteen hundred people are crossing illegally into the United States from Mexico each day.  Here in the United States, many of us are prone to find easy solutions. A comment on the Los Angeles Times website is typical.

"Immigration Reform:
1. Secure the border
2. Round up and send all illegal immigrants back to their home countries."

As Williams' film demonstrates, such solutions are not only inhumane; they are impractical.

During the last five minutes of the film, Williams takes us outside Mission San Xavier del Bac in the Tohono O'odham Nation, which primarily serves parishoners on the Nation.  

We see the end of an eight-mile annual pilgrimage from a church in Tuscon to the mission. Kat Rodriguez, who works for a group called Coalicion de Derechose Humanos explains:   "We make crosses that bear the names of those who have died, carry the crosses with us on our 8-mile journey, and then have them join the crosses of those who perished in previous years. The Pilgrimage is done with the permission of the Tohono O'odham Nation. We are met by W:ak Traditional singers, who welcome us onto O'odham land. We are also met by the Franciscan priests at San Xavier Mission, who welcome us and do us the honor of blessing the crosses and all present."

In the film's closing scene, we witness priests and immigration activists read each name of each and every migrant who perished over the past nine years, including many Jane and John Does, whose bones - and lives - remain undocumented.

                               " For I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Matthew 25:35).

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