Rebecca Cammisa became a filmmaker in 1998, when she teamed up to co-direct, co-produce, and shoot the feature documentary film Sister Helen. In 2003, Rebecca founded Documentress Films, and received development support from the Sundance Documentary Fund, HBO, the Wellspring Foundation, and the William J. Fulbright Fellowship in Filmmaking for Which Way Home.
Why was this story essential for you to tell?
I was shocked that this was happening and how children and adults migrants were suffering just to get to the United States. The journey through Mexico can be completely dehumanizing and child migrants do suffering greatly. One reason this film was made was to make the families think twice about letting their children attempt this harrowing journey. I hope that lawmakers will watch this film and feel that it is imperative that humane, immigration reform bills get passed right away.
You show these terrifying images of children folded into the inside structure of cars--like the space between the actual door of the car. Talk about the toll of this kind of smuggling.
Those photographs were given to us by the Department of Homeland Security. One photo shows a child hidden inside a glove compartment in a car. Some child migrants are transported this way while others are forced to crossing the Sonora desert. If they do make it, they might then be taken to safe houses where they could be held for ransom, or if they are too weak, they will be left in the desert to die.
When I did ask parents and family members, "How could you let your child go with a smuggler," they often said, "You know, the person doing it is our neighbor. And he's going too: he can look out for their safety." So many times it's a neighbor who's accompanying the child, someone who's trusted, someone from within the community. But what they don't always understand is that the neighbor may not make it all the way through Mexico, and then their children end up in the hands of strangers who only care about money, or God knows what else!
The film touches on that: kids getting robbed, disappearing along the way, falling asleep and rolling off the train, getting killed by the tunnels, and in one instance, a girl's rape in a train car is recounted. Why are people risking so much to get to the United States?
Well the kids we focused on, some of them were kids who had parents and other relatives in the United States. And in other instances, these were kids from extremely poor families--and there's no jobs in their home countries--so they come to the United States hoping to get the money and send it back to their families. And you know, often times they don't know the reality of the journey. And they think once they commit and make it as far as Mexico, that they have no choice but to continue on. So much is depending on them succeeding in the U.S.
Many people think that migrants just easily appear at the U.S. border. But the tough journey begins at the Mexico-Guatemala border. And a lot of the criminality and violence occurs when traveling through to Mexico. So by the time migrants arrive to the US border, they've already been severely traumatized. It is my hope that when people watch this film, they realize what these people are put through. They really suffer.
What do you say to those that say the United States is not responsible?
Well first of all, U.S. economic policies have had some adverse affects on Central American and Mexican farmers by undercutting their ability to sell their products in their own countries. These negative affects have impacted the migration north. But putting that aside, the United States is not some floating island. We are part of North America and the Western Hemisphere.
Therefore, when there's poverty, environmental disasters, and destabilization in other countries, people migrate north just to survive. I would love to say that illegal immigration shouldn't be our problem, but guess what: problems magnify and illegal immigration is an issue that all of the countries in the Western Hemisphere must solve together as a shared responsibility.
So does this corporate exploitation of indigenous peoples contribute to this massive immigration?
Clearly the negative side of all corporate structures is exploitation. I've met many Central American migrants who said they would have stayed in their countries if they could make a decent living selling their crops. So when you say we're not responsible, you really have to look at the economic issues that people are being effected by, that's a shared responsibility that we all have to solve.
Talk about the Minutemen on the borders of the U.S.
Of the Minutemen/women we met, many of them are concerned because they own land on the border and they have massive amounts of people smuggling drugs into their land. There's violence, rape, robbery, shooting. So people who are living close that border have real concerns. Then we met others who traveled from states like Indiana, Pennsylvania, Maryland, etc. who felt that they wanted to do their part to protect the U.S. border. For many Minutepeople we met, they seemed to be very emotional about the immigration issue, however when I asked them what they knew about what migrants experienced when traveling north, mostly all of them were not that informed. They certainly were not aware of the fact that children were coming as a means of family reunification. After spending time with some members of the Minuteman movement, I definitely walked away believing that this film was much needed.
What humanitarian changes can be made in the US immigration system?
Well first of all there's the DREAM Act. The Dream Act is that if children come here and are undocumented, but they excel and do really well in school, there's a path to citizenship for them. Even though they're undocumented, if they're in school and really high achievers, then they can possibly get a permanent residence card. And don't we want the best and brightest in this country? If we see children who are excelling, why would we cut ourselves off from the opportunity of not having the best future for this country? So I think the DREAM Act would be a wonderful thing, a great support mechanism for children who were born here, who maybe have never lived in Central and South America or Mexico because they were either born here or came here when they were little, they have no real connection with the country they're from and we just deport them back and deport them to what?
One boy I met along the way was 19, he was just deported. He had never lived in Mexico his entire life. He was not documented here, but he was born and raised here. He's never been in Mexico in his entire life! We met him in a shelter and he didn't even know anybody. I mean this is insane. Again, you cannot paint people with one brush. And these policies do that.
And think about it this way: If people are given a legal means to come, where are they gonna put their money when they travel? Are they going to get on a bus, get on a plane legally? Or are they gonna pay three to four thousand dollars to a smuggler and die in the desert? A by-product of these current policies--that aren't really functional--is that people make desperate decisions and that the people that benefit are the smuggling networks. Money that could go to an airline or to a bus carrier instead goes into a network that smuggles people.
After 9/11, the U.S.-Mexico border was in lock-down. The by-product of this lockdown are these people who have migrated to the US now just wouldn't leave. And so now there's a break in circularity. So another humane practical law that could be enacted would be a guest worker program. I think if people are allowed to come legally, work for a certain amount of time and then go home, they would. And look, they wanna go home; they'd probably rather be with their family. And I think that at least that would help families reunite and not keep families separated for years on end.
It's easy for people in this country to overlook the Latino community--especially those with what are considered more menial jobs--and not take into consideration and appreciate the incredible circumstances from which they came that led them here. Talk about your experience with families and the difference between those with and those without relatives in the US.
Back in 2006, I made a trip to El Salvador because I wanted to see the difference between families who have relatives in the US and families who don't have relatives in the US. And so I was taken to one family that lived very simply and they had their own store--they had a means of livelihood, a tienda in town. Well the money to build that tienda and keep it going was being supplemented and supported by a family member in the United States. And then I wanted to see a family without relatives in the US. So we walk along these railroad tracks--these long railroad tracks--where no trains travel through anymore. And there are these houses along the tracks, so we went in to see a family. And I went in and it was pitch black, a lot of shade. I go in and there's about eight people in the room and the woman tells me, this is a family without anyone in the United States. I saw two people, other than children just sitting on mats, I saw a woman in her fifties laying in bed who was dying of breast cancer--there was no money for treatment. But right next to her was this very sunken-in man in his twenties, coughing and hacking. And so I thought, "Oh my God, he must have TB or something." No, he had AIDS. And he was wasting away. So I asked this woman, why is this woman with terminal breast cancer lying in here and why is this man coughing and hacking his lungs out right next to her not getting any treatment? And she looked at me and just said, "They don't have the money." So they're basically gonna die here. So the mother's laying in bed just waiting to die out and there's the son in worse condition. So lemme tell you, if that was my brother and my mother, my ass would be on a freight train going North to try and help them. I wanted that to very much appear in the film, but it took the story in a whole other direction. But what we wanna do is take extra footage from the film and put it on the site so people can get a much more in-depth understanding of what's going on. I wish this was a whole series. And that's why I really want people to go the website, because if you watch this for five to ten minutes, you'll get it. You'll get it.
Finally, what do you hope people will gain from this incredible documentary?
Awareness. Awareness about how dangerous this journey really is for those migrants who continue to take the trip north. I think the U.S. public-at-large is greatly uninformed about what migrants suffer to get here, a country whose entire modern history was created by the migrant experience. I hope the young subjects of the film reminds us of why our own ancestors came, and ultimately, I hope the film spreads compassion for "our neighbors from the South", who are in great need.