“Where can your mobility take you?”, the director of the Trans-Border Institute, Dr. Everard Meade, asked the audience to conclude the third night of the weeklong 2017 Border Film Festival, held at the University of San Diego’s Kroc School of Peace Studies and Cine Tonalá in Tijuana, Mexico. This question was also running through my head while I watched the films Through the Wall (2016, dir. Tim Nackashi) and Mexican Dream/ Sueño Mexicano (2015, dirs. Jon Wetterau and Alex Ruiz Euler). Quoted in San Diego Magazine, Dr. Meade explained the goals of the week best by saying, “Border Film Week isn’t just an event or a festival—it’s an expression of one of our preferred methods of bringing people together to build a more peaceful and just society… Visual media has the unique capacity to generate empathy across social and cultural divides.”
Discussions on how to generate empathy and tell the story of the true human cost of immigration policy continued through the evening’s panel and public forum with Dr. Meade; Enrique Morones, founder of Border Angels; Pedro Ríos of the American Friends Service Committee; Dr. Tom Wong from UC San Diego; and Dr. Greg Prieto from the University of San Diego.
Much uncertainty, anxiety, and public protest has surrounded President Trump’s executive orders to bar refugees and citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries and to abruptly and widely expand the mandate of ICE (Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement) to aggressively round up migrants. In response, the faculty and friends of the Trans-Border Institute looked to create space to have conversations about these policy changes and their implications, among people of all political persuasions, through emphasizing the humanity that lives at the center of the debate.
Of course the migration debate already begs the notion of “mobility”… but mobility for whom? Both films masterfully highlight the brutal physical divisions that the wall at the San Diego/Tijuana border creates, as well as the damaging emotional/social divisions that ripples across continents. Through the Wall documents a family’s reunion through the border fence after being separated by deportation. Two-year-old Julián gets to touch his father’s finger through a fence so thick only shadows are visible. By contrast, at the same time, the American documentarians were able to travel to Tijuana to film Julián’s father, Uriel, and the trek he makes to visit his family. After leaving Tijuana, the Americans were able to return across the border to film Julián and his mother, Abril. They might’ve traversed the border a dozen times to make the film. I wonder if they gave Abril or Julián a hug from Uriel.
In Mexican Dream/ Sueño Mexicano, directors Wetterau and Ruiz Euler were able to travel back and forth from Sierra Mixtecca in Oaxaca, Mexico, to Austin, Minnesota, the home of SPAM and the Hormel Foods pork factory, to document the stories of families that have been separated for decades. The migration story begins in the beautiful rolling hills of Oaxaca, with a narrative we may have assumed (although many forget or downplay) of extreme poverty and economic deprivation. Elderly people sit and weave hats to sell for 2 or 3 pesos each (equivalent to 25 American cents), or a basket for 40 cents, which takes 2 or 3 days to make. Children interviewed in the middle school say their only option is to travel to America or Mexico City once they leave school, because there are no job opportunities for them at home. When they do leave, the old people lament they’ll return to brothers and sisters whom they have never met, or to parents who have passed away.
Situating the same story from a location far north in Minnesota lends an even greater understanding to the demand for migrant workers, the businesses that profit from and even promote migration, and ultimately, as Dr. Greg Prieto reminds us, how the threat of deportation works to maintain an exploitable labor force. The migrant workers at Hormel Foods perform the worst jobs (use your imagination as to what goes on inside a SPAM factory), and contrary to popular belief, also pay into social services without ever being able to receive those benefits themselves. Workers use fake Social Security cards (with real numbers) that the IRS has no incentive to investigate. Hormel Foods can benefit from employing workers who aren’t able to complain or report grievances, while the state maintains a lucrative tax base. The workers admit they are often recruited by businesses in the surrounding towns to come work for them. They say of course! they want to go home to Mexico, but working mundane and difficult jobs far from their home and far from their family is worth it for the future of their children.
These are the stories that need to be told and at the center of immigration debate: the stories of family, sacrifice, love, and perseverance. What would you do for your children? I know my parents would have done anything they could to provide for us kids. Why is the humanity lost? Why are refugees thought of in numbers instead of as families and people, each with unique stories and lives, who are forced to flee for their lives? Deportation and the militarization of immigration control strategies are combined to destroy lives and break apart families.
During the public forum, an audience member brought up the recent case of Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, a mother of two US citizens, who was deported on Thursday, February 9, 2017. Garcia de Rayos lived in the US for 22 years, since she was 14 years old, and was deported after a routine check-in with ICE. She is a victim of President Trump’s executive order to widen ICE priorities to include people like Garcia de Rayos, who was convicted for criminal impersonation, a nonviolent felony, after a workplace raid in 2009. According to another audience member, 100 more people are being detained, awaiting deportation in Los Angeles. Local news says over 160 people were arrested in the LA area this week.
California politicians are demanding greater transparency from ICE operations as immigrant advocates also push for ICE to release the information regarding the violations which the arrested have allegedly committed. The ACLU has been circulating “Know your rights” cards to help people protect themselves if confronted by ICE agents at their doors. Protests have taken place across the border region in response to these detention policies.
Border apprehensions at the US/Mexico border are at a 40-year low. The “border crisis” that has been invoked by politicians and the media as of late simply isn’t true. We need to ask ourselves hard questions, such as how does American society explicitly gain from migrant labor? Not only are American companies and consumers profiting from migrant labor and cheap goods (how much do you think your tomatoes would cost if there wasn’t an exploitable migrant labor force?), but as we have seen in the example of workers employed by Hormel Foods in Austin, Minnesota, migrants pay taxes and support social services.
Where can your mobility take you? As a white, American graduate student, I could geographically go almost anywhere I would like. Also, my family is at zero risk of ever being forcibly separated. How can I take advantage of the mobility I am blessed to have, in order to amplify the facts and help protect and amplify the voices of the humans who are caught in the middle of a worsening, inhumane immigration policy? How will you use yours?
Update: Last week in El Paso Texas, six federal ICE agents went to the county court house and arrested a woman to be deported, after she received a protective order against domestic abuse. El Paso County Attorney Jo Anne Bernal is especially appalled considering ICE agents acted upon a tip assumed to be from the woman's alleged abuser. 65th District Judge Yahara Lisa Gutierrez explains how common it is for domestic abusers to control their undocumented partners by threatening to turn them into immigration enforcement. In this way county leaders are worried the arrest will echo through the undocumented community and scare individuals into staying with abusive partners for fear of being deported and separated from their children. Bernal's office is investigating the incident.