Television Review: Borderland

by Matthew Bray

Borderland, a new series produced for Al Jazeera America, examines our current immigration crisis by following six Americans from different parts of the country and walks of life as they trace the steps of migrants who died crossing the border. The Borderland experience promises that each of the six participants--all of whom hold strong opinions regarding immigration, both pro and against--will be changed forever by the journey, and the series certainly delivers on that promise. In the process, the show provides a more informed and nuanced perspective on the debate about our immigration policies by painting a picture of some of the human cost of those polices beyond the rhetoric and statistics.

The six Americans are: Alison Melder, Republican staffer in the Arkansas State Legislature; Alex Seel, a Brooklyn-based photographer and artist; Gary Larsen, who employs migrant workers on his Washington State asparagus farm; Kishana Holland, a fashion blogger and publicist from Las Vegas; Lis-Marie Alvarado, daughter of Nicaraguan immigrants and an activist and community organizer on behalf of day laborers in Florida; and Randy Stufflebeam, Vice Chairman of the Constitution Party, which opposes amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

Alison, Kishana, and Randy are portrayed at the beginning as staunchly anti-illegal immigration: Alison expresses fear that undocumented immigrants represent an unknown that threatens public safety; Kishana, a 9/11 survivor and mother, boasts that she would gladly report to the immigration authorities a neighbor if she knew they were unlawfully present; and Randy likens illegal immigration to an invasion that the US Army should be called in to repel.

Alex, Gary, and Lis-Marie are more sympathetic to immigrants: Alex is quoted as saying “There’s no such thing as illegal immigration, especially in America” (a nod to the fact that this country was founded by immigrants without permission to be here from the native peoples); Gary rejects the arguments that illegal immigrants take away jobs from Americans, pointing out that Americans are unwilling to do the farm labor that his business requires; Lis-Marie calls it “shameful” to reduce any person to the adjective of illegal or legal.

Borderland starts out in the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office and the morgue that holds and processes every year more than 185 (often unidentified) bodies of people who died in the Arizona desert, most frequently of dehydration, heat exhaustion, or hypothermia. Confronted with the deadly reality of the migrant journey, the group must quickly accept that despite their strong views about the border, they really had little direct understanding about what happens there.

They then meet with the Cochise County sheriff, who explains how Operation Gatekeeper and other border operations that began in the mid-1990s rerouted the decades old illegal traffic from populated areas, like around San Diego, CA, to unpopulated areas, like Cochise County, AZ. The idea behind sending this traffic into the deserts and mountain ranges and away from the main population centers was to discourage border crossing. Of course, instead of decreasing the volume of the cross-border traffic, these operations increased the number of fatalities.

The group also meets local ranchers whose property is regularly crossed by both migrants and drug traffickers. These ranchers find themselves in the crosshairs of sometimes violent confrontations between border patrol and drug smugglers, and have little sympathy for the average border crosser. This hard line challenges Alex, Lis-Marie, and Gary. Alex recognizes that it is easy to say “Smash the border” but that it's more difficult for people living and working on the border who must deal with drug cartels controlling their property.

Lis-Marie asks if the ranchers distinguish between the drug cartels and the undocumented immigrants coming to work and reunite with their families, and is discouraged when she is told no. The ranchers say they have no sympathy for the illegal border crossers, since they are choosing to re-enter illegally, and to reunite with family that themselves came illegally as well. The same ranchers tell the group that they believe the problem lies with the US employers who provide work to migrants, and Gary sees himself implicated here, since he acknowledges he has no direct way to verify the documents his own farm workers present when he hires them.

The group also meets with No More Deaths, the all-volunteer humanitarian organization that has for more than a decade made regular trips into the desert to bring water, food, and medical supplies for migrants in need, and joins the volunteers on a water drop. When they are encouraged to leave a note with a marker on the water bottles, neither Randy nor Alison can bring themselves to leave words of encouragement. Alison settles on “Jesus Loves You” and Randy decides to leave only the date, but tells the camera he really wants to say “Go Back Home!” Kishana acknowledges that the group is on a humanitarian mission, but believes that by leaving water and medical supplies, No More Deaths is encouraging law-breaking.

The Pima County Medical Examiner, who serves as the guide through their journey, divides the group into three pairs with the mission of retracing the steps of three migrants whose remains were found in the desert and had been identified, to tell their stories, and better understand why they made the journey. This is by far the best part of the series. The statistics are well-documented. Since 1994, hundreds have died every year crossing the border in the deserts and mountains of Eastern California and Arizona. Billions have been spent on border militarization over the last decade, and yet the numbers of people attempting to cross has not decreased significantly. More than 2,500 bodies have been found in Arizona alone over the last fifteen years. But to hear and experience just one of the stories behind these statistics adds texture and meaning to the debate, and a sense of urgency. The stories they tell:

Claudeth Sanchez, twenty-one, from Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico. Kishana and Lis-Marie meet Claudeth’s family and learn about her sense of ambition and adventure, as well as her dedication to her family. They learn about Claudeth’s decision to travel north in order to find work and send money. The two also meet Claudeth’s brother, an activist who tries to convince the locals not to follow the migrant path to the US but rather to remain and improve their communities. Claudeth’s mother recounts the heartbreaking call she received from the Mexican consulate in Arizona that her daughter’s body was found in the desert.

Omar Lopez, thirteen, from El Porvenir, Guatemala. Alison and Gary meet Omar’s aunt and grandfather and learn that his mother had paid a coyote to bring him and an older neighbor across the border. Alison and Gary have a hard time coming to terms with a mother’s decision to send a young boy on such a perilous journey. They spend the night in the one room shack where Omar lived, and confront the reality of poverty in El Porvenir, including high levels of childhood malnutrition that are pervasive in parts of Guatemala. They spend the next day working on a coffee plantation, where local children work for poverty wages, and they meet children from a local school. Most of the children have relatives in the US and hope to travel there one day, fully aware of the risks of the journey. Gary observes that most likely a few of these children would die during the journey.

Maira Zelaya, thirty-nine, from Des Moines, Iowa and El Salvador. Alex and Randy meet with her mother, still living in Des Moines, who tells the story of Maira’s happy life in Des Moines and her deportation after nine years in the US. When she was deported, Maira returned to a place she hardly recognized, a country that had been ravaged by gang violence over the prior decade. On their first day in San Salvador, they witness a street murder, leading Randy to argue that the Salvadoran culture is inherently violent and justifies further barriers to immigration. Alex rejects the idea that potential immigrants should be barred because of the violence in the society they come from. They meet a family friend of Maira’s who tried to dissuade her from the journey but ultimately accompanied her and witnessed her death.

It’s hard to hear these stories without being affected. Alison, Kishana, and Randy each admit that meeting the families of these migrants and seeing their communities has helped them to see the human side of the illegal immigration debate. Spending time at the border, and hearing their stories, they each become angry at the conditions that drive people to immigration, but also begin to soften their tone on the subject.

After they leave the hometowns of Claudeth, Omar, and Maira, the group reunites in Arriaga, Mexico, a major starting point for the long journey north through Mexico. It is here that they all begin to understand not only the conditions that lead migrants to leave their home countries, but also the rampant violence that befalls migrants as they travel through Mexico, where drug cartels control the major migrant trails. La Bestia, or the Beast, is a freight train that takes hundreds of immigrants north through Mexico every day. Thousands have died or been mutilated falling from the train. The group takes the train with hundreds of others and is astounded at how calm everyone is although they are embarking on a long, harrowing, and incredibly dangerous trip. Alison sums it up: “They’re not afraid. What they’re running from is scarier than this train.”

Finally, the group is confronted with the final leg of the journey, crossing from Altar in Northern Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona, a seventy-mile trip across brutal desert terrain. Their guide as they cross is a retired law enforcement official familiar with the routes taken by the coyotes. He requires the group to keep a fast pace, walking all day through the desert in searing heat, and enduring nights of subfreezing temperatures. The group has to make a difficult decision as they travel through the desert, a decision that many migrants confront along the journey as well.

Like many reality TV shows, Borderland certainly aims to capture some of the drama that arises among the six strong-minded individuals, but this series offers far more than gratuitous in-fighting. It succeeds by skillfully pairing statistics about the border and the migrants’ journey with real life stories of individuals who did not make it.

In the end, the more hardline anti-immigrant attitudes had mellowed. Alison admits that her attitude towards immigrants as all criminals was “racist.” And while Randy did not change his opinion, he promised to temper the inflammatory language he uses to describe people at the center of the immigration debate and says: “My heart is breaking for these people. I am forever changed.” Kashana says: “I’m not going to just see them as illegal immigrants, I’m going to see them as just another mom trying to provide for their kids.” But she ultimately maintains that her opinion is unchanged, angry that “no one is ashamed or embarrassed” about illegal crossing, and that the migrants seem to feel entitled to make this journey.

The pro-immigrant participants were also clearly affected by the trip as well, though I did not have the impression that their opinions had changed so dramatically. Alex mentions that his perspective had widened and that he recognizes that things are not so simple as he had first thought. Lis-Marie committed to being more tolerant of others’ viewpoints, and trying to understand them with respect.

I think the fundamentally human nature of the experience accounts for this uneven effect. By introducing the six Americans and the television audience to the lives of the migrants who died--Claudeth, Omar and Maira--Borderland inevitably makes us sympathize with part of our country’s population that remains largely invisible, and invites us to join the immigration debate beyond partisan politics. I look forward to more such nuanced and complex documentary/reality shows that reveal and inform about the migrant experience.