Illegal immigration is the topic du jour for many paying attention to presidential politics and I have to confess that I’m not quite sure how that happened. Perhaps it’s because I’m cloistered in rural New England, perhaps it’s because I’m hardly a conservative. One thing I do know is that it is consistent with other issues that seem to rile up conservatives — it’s an intensely personal one to those affected, despite its presentation in a national forum. In “Children in No-Man’s Land,” director Anayansi Prado offers a slice of the experience of actual children who make the journey across the border and into our country. Most often, we hear about the adults who take the harrowing journey over and when kids do enter into the equation, it is as part of a family group making the run.
But how many children cross over apart from their parents? How many are separated from their parents? How many are detained alone? The official number is 3.5 million illegal immigrants come into our country each year, about 100,000 of them are kids. The total number of children arrested each year is 85,000, most but a tiny minority in their teens. At any given moment, the U.S. Homeland Security Department detains an average of 700 teens.
Prado’s film puts a face on these kids by following two of them — 13-year-old Maria de Jesus and her 12-year-old cousin Rene — determined to make their way to Chicago to reunite with their mothers. Maria de Jesus has not seen her mother for seven years.
Their stories unfold as Prado’s camera captures both sides of the action, spending time with Maria de Jesus’ mother in Chicago and capturing her feelings about the situation, while following the children in Mexico after their first failed attempt to cross the border and into their second. Prado examines the children’s reasons for making their journey and they are many — a dissatisfaction with Mexico, a pining for their mothers and eyes lit up by the glitz of exported American culture via the movie industry are just three.
These feelings of hopefulness are contrasted with their accounts of being caught in their first attempt, which adds a context to their endeavor that isn’t often used in the public debate on the matter — bravery. It is no small undertaking for anyone, let alone a kid, to decide to break into another country, but it is a sign of their level of determination that a child would do so and succeed.
The question becomes “Is it right to strut our stuff and then stop people who will do anything to get a piece of our action?” and even then I am oversimplifying it. Of course it is our right, as a country, to prevent people from coming in illegally, but is it moral to expel them? Or is there another path that can be taken? We are a take charge country, but our biggest public investment in a foreign country has been hopelessly misguided and become less popular as each year of the effort has passed — that being Iraq. Imagine if the money that were poured into that war — and the contracts involved — were poured into improving the future of our neighbor to the south, of helping them develop a sustainable economy that partnered with us in some way, working together to see that Mexicans were happy and productive in their own country and we did not feel our livelihoods were threatened by them.
Isn’t that the sort of problem-solving we pay our servants in the government to do? And aren’t there more lucrative contracts to be had from such arrangements than whatever we pay for fence-building, both physically on the border and in legislation?
With these sorts of thoughts in my head, it occurred to me that the issue of immigration has been brewing right in front of me for longer than I had noticed — that, yes, up here in my little corner of New England, the issue had escaped my daily attention but had sporadically shown up in the form of other documentary films that had passed through town. “Rain in a Dry Land,” for instance, had chronicled the arrival of Somalian Bantu in our country, and the fact that it concerned immigrants from a country other than Mexico, escaping horrors that were quantifiable in the American mind, helped bring some empathy to the table in regard to the circumstances that can bring people to our country. But does it really take war and horror to help Americans understand the desperation to get here? Why not poverty? Why not hope?
It was a couple years ago that I interviewed director Jeremy Levine about his film “Walking the Line,” a movie that works as a perfect counterpoint to “Children in No-Man’s Land.” It follows the obsessives for whom illegal immigration is the biggest political issue possible and have therefore devoted their lives to manning the border and taking the law into their own hands — more simply put, a group of gun-toting conspiracy theorists organizing militias. I couldn’t help but think of these guys as I watched the plight of two kids trying to get to their mother. The folks in Levine’s film sit out in the desert, all hours of day and night, with guns and camouflage gear and trucks, waiting and watching for the chance to stop whoever is trying to “invade” our country. Somehow, with all this time on their hands, sitting, doing nothing, they never seem to spend any time contemplating the situation.
That’s all kids like Maria de Jesus can do — contemplate. And when they finally take action and make the journey and succeed, it’s just more contemplation, born from their status as a legal outsider who can’t access American culture or opportunity with any comfort or ease. For these kids, it can be journey of one kind of poverty to another, and this is something the national debate doesn’t always address. Instead of being treated as cockroaches infesting our country, kids like Maria de Jesus should be seen as the survivors they are, credits to humanity who show a spirit required for success, who make a harsh decision and stick to it. These are not pampered, lazy kids, these are kids who made a thousand mile journey across a deadly desert in order to stay alive. Surely that commands some respect.