As both a college professor and a humanitarian aid worker, I am always searching for new films on immigration for my classroom. On April 29, 2013, the PBS series [I]NDEPENDENT LENS aired the documentary The Undocumented by filmmaker Marco Williams. The latest in a series of productions addressing the influx of border crossings in Arizona’s Sonora Desert, the film is, on the surface, the story of Marcos Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant living in Chicago and searching for his father Francisco, who was abandoned in the desert in 1998 while crossing to find work in the United States. Viewers follow Marcos eleven years later as he desperately reaches out to organizations such as Derechos Humanos, the Mexican Consulate, and the Pima County Medical Examiner in order to find his father and bring him home.
The Undocumented is more than the story of Marcos Hernandez’ s search, however. It is the story of the hundreds of desconocido(a)s discovered in the Arizona desert each year unable to speak for themselves and of the men and women who work tirelessly to help them regain their identity. As one of the first documentaries showing the realities of the border through the perspective of the dead as well as the living, the film is at once disturbing, saddening, and frustrating. We follow the path of unidentified bodies and skeletal remains from the desert to the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner in Tucson, Arizona, and then, hopefully, to their families. At the Medical Examiner’s office the bodies are cleaned, autopsied, photographed, and recorded. Those with identification are returned to their families while bodies labeled as John or Jane Doe are placed in freezer specifically built to handle an increasing number of immigrant remains. Once notified of the discovery, members of the Mexican Consulate begin the arduous process of naming the nameless, searching through clothing and personal effects for some form of identification. They search belts, shoes, backpacks, shirts, and jeans and pants for names, phone numbers, or driver’s licenses. Sometimes they are lucky, most times they are not. Photographs of personal effects from these searches are sent to organizations such as Derechos Humanos, which maintains a database of information received from concerned family members about their loved ones. Some families are able to gain closure and bring them home, while others are left to wonder. It is these families’ pain and frustration that makes the film powerful and heartbreaking.
The documentary’s goal of “going beyond politics” (a quote taken from the show’s website) to focus on the human toll of U.S. immigration policy, while crucial to understanding the lived experiences of those crossing the border, is also problematic. In a clip of Mexican Consulate employees discussing the death of immigrant Blanca Leon-Hernandez, a Mexican woman who perished while crossing with her grandson to reunite with his mother, it is mentioned that she had requested a visa prior to her decision to cross illegally. When an employee inquires as to why she did not wait for the visa, the other responds “she got impatient” and the film cuts to the next scene. In choosing to close the conversation with these three words, the director misses an opportunity to challenge stereotypes and discuss the major flaws in current immigration policy that influence people’s decisions to risk death. Portraying Blanca as “impatient” reinforces popular views of immigrants as flagrantly violating the law while obscuring the high financial and emotional costs of obtaining a visa and the possible decade long wait she faced to legally reunite her fractured family. It also obscures the very real threats of physical, sexual, and psychological violence Blanca faced as a woman alone in the desert.
Regardless of its faults, The Undocumented would make an excellent addition to any Borderlands History course. For me, the story is not new. Seven years of humanitarian aid work on the border with the group No Más Muertes has made me intimately familiar with its realities. Nonetheless, every day I teach in New Jersey (and every day I taught in Arizona) reminds me why films such as this one are important. They introduce my students to a history often silenced in high school classrooms and an issue often misresprented in popular media. In doing so they challenge their preconceived notions of immigration and life on the border while working to give a name to the nameless.
To learn more about the film, please visit http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/undocumented/