I was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and grew up in San Diego, California, only a few hundred yards from the actual borderline. As a kid, there were always border patrols around but I never felt like my birthplace offered any threat. A few years ago, though, I noticed a massive escalation of security infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico border. I couldn't figure out what had changed. How had Mexico and our neighbors to the south become a threat? Did we really need to spend billions of dollars on fencing, technology, and thousands more border guards? And was any of it working? I decided to investigate, and to document my findings.
From 2007 to 2009, I followed the construction of what is now close to 800 miles of border security infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico international boundary. What I found was a mess. Dozens of environmental laws were being waived in order to acquire land to build the new border walls. New technology for border security enforcement was over-priced and non-functional. The natural landscape was permanently scarred to 'protect' us from migrants. The assessment from scholars, government agencies, and even the border patrol was that this multi-billion dollar effort was not going to solve America's immigration problems. All of these details on their own would have made a compelling documentary. But there was something even more conspicuous and tragic than the blunders and cost overruns: increased border security was proving to be a massive killer.
According to numerous reports, migrant deaths were escalating, and increased border security was the culprit. Migrants were being funneled into more remote areas than ever before. In 2009, because of the slumping economy, though migration as a whole was down by thirty percent, migrant deaths were up -- there were fewer people crossing but more people dying.
That's what caught my attention and that is the reality that The 800 Mile Wall exposes. There is a human rights crisis occurring on U.S. soil. Thousands of people have already died, and thousands more will die until U.S. immigration law is reformed. Migrants are drawn to the U.S. with the promise of low-wage jobs and then forced through a deadly obstacle course to get here. U.S. border policies are inhumane and not worthy of a country that calls itself a nation of immigrants.
The 800 Mile Wall is about to embark on a nationwide tour to raise awareness about this under-reported, ongoing atrocity. If comprehensive immigration reform fails to deal with migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border, it is neither comprehensive nor reform. As a nation that prides itself on respecting human rights, the death penalty needs to be removed from U.S. border security policy.
John Carlos Frey is an award-winning director whose films include The 800 Mile Wall, The Gatekeeper, The Invisible Mexicans of Deer Canyon, and The Invisible Chapel. He is currently working on a series of documentaries on the Latino experience in the United States as well as a new feature film, The Lone Star.