A complex tragedy at the border

John Carlos Frey wants you to be angry about the U.S.-Mexico border.

He wants you to feel such a deep sense of moral outrage that you’ll get out of your chair and write a letter to your congressman.

That’s why he invited me to the border town of El Centro, to stand in Imperial County’s pauper’s cemetery, a dusty field dotted with about 900 concrete markers the size of bread loaves.

Each was stamped with numbers or the name “John Doe.” Several hundred marked the final resting place of Mexican and other Latin American migrants who’ve died walking across the desert or drowned trying to cross the nearby All-American Canal.

Frey, a 46-year-old filmmaker, blames the U.S. government for their deaths. In all, some 6,000 people have died crossing the Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California borders with Mexico since 1994, according to human-rights groups. About 500 more die every year.

In his new documentary film, “The 800 Mile Wall,” Frey says this tragedy is the foreseeable result of a policy that sealed off urban crossing routes, driving migrants into the desert.

“Doesn’t this qualify as an atrocity to you?” Frey asked, after we’d walked to the center of the cemetery on a warm winter day last week.

I thought about Frey’s question for a moment and tried to imagine the individual stories that had brought all these people to this sad end.

I’ve lived in Mexico and I have family in Guatemala. I’ve been to the urban neighborhoods and the rural villages of adobe and cinder-block where migrant journeys begin. But I wouldn’t apply the word “atrocity” to what I’ve seen, not in the sense that Frey means.

On our long drive to El Centro, he had compared the migrant death toll to horrors that no one would dispute deserve that stark label: genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.

“Their deaths are systematic and they’re the results of a policy,” he said of the border crossers. “And it’s not just a few. It’s thousands.” Some people, he said, think the death toll might be as high as 20,000.

“You wonder how long it will take people to get angry,” he said later. “How long did it take in Darfur?”

Comparing the deaths at the border to massacres of Darfur makes for a poor analogy for lots of different reasons. But Frey’s hyperbole is understandable. “Maybe it’s because I’ve seen the bodies,” he tells me.

Frey’s film contains gruesome images and heart-breaking stories. He interviews a tearful Guatemalan man who had to identify his wife’s remains at an Arizona coroner’s office before being deported.

We meet an artist who gathers the objects migrants abandon in the desert, including the journal of a girl crossing with her family. The girl sketched a picture of the truck that drove her to the border, and the green grass she imagined on the other side.

We’re shown the mummified remains of a woman -- we never learn where she’s from -- who was traveling to the Bay Area to meet her fiance. We see the long hair flowing from her skull and the bones that have been stripped by animal predators.

Frey told me he’s going to take his film on a tour of the United States this year. “I think if Americans knew what was happening here, they would be compassionate,” he said. “Maybe I’m naive.”

He wants to use the film as a tool to build support for an immigration reform bill in Congress that would allow migrants a safe crossing to the jobs that await them.

That’s a laudable goal. But there’s something about the way he and a lot of other people see the issue of immigration that deeply troubles me.

As a son of immigrants, I just don’t buy the constant portrayal of immigrants in U.S. media as either victims or victimizers.

A number of television personalities have sold the American people on the idea that Latino immigrants are a criminal force undermining U.S. society. In “The 800 Mile Wall” the ill-fated migrants are all victims of forces beyond their control.

“I know that they have free will,” Frey said of the migrants. “But I don’t know that they have a free choice.”

Actually, nearly every adult who undertakes the journey does have a choice.

A fairly typical crossing story, I told Frey, might begin in a Mexican town where a young woman wants desperately to go to college. She dreams of escaping the life of domestic labor that awaits her but can’t think of any other way to defy her parents. Or it might begin in San Salvador, with a man who wants to emulate his wealthy cousin in Virginia.

In other words, many choose to go on la aventura, as it’s popularly known, because it’s the easiest avenue to social mobility. It’s not the best choice in the world. It might be desperate or reckless, but it is a choice.

The dead migrants in that El Centro cemetery weren’t driven to their deaths by soldiers with guns, as in Bosnia, or by killers armed with machetes, as in Rwanda.

That’s why I couldn’t say it is an atrocity. It’s a complex tragedy born of inequality, yes. The policy that leads people to risk their lives crossing the desert is cruel, yes. But it’s a risk people take, often knowingly and often from human motives as universal as restlessness and ambition.

“This is really only a small slice of the immigrant story,” I told Frey.

I’d like to think we could build support for immigration reform by telling the full, nuanced story of the immigrant experience in the U.S. But maybe that makes me the naive one.

These are desperate, polarized times. People really should be angry about what’s happening on the border. They should see the horrors of “The 800 Mile Wall” and they should ask themselves deeper questions about why people are willing to risk death to come here. And then they should write their congressman.