Saturday, November 08, 2014

Crossing over

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 9, 2014

A stretch of the US-Mexico border. Photo: Reuters
A stretch of the US-Mexico border. Photo: Reuters
Sometimes a documentary film speaks louder than a thousand words. And so it was last week when I chanced upon a powerful documentary film, Maria in Nobody’s Land. Made in 2010 by a first-time filmmaker, Marcela Zamora Chamorro, and winner of several awards, the film portrays a picture of illegal immigration into the United States about which I had little knowledge.

If you have lived in the U.S., you would know about the push from people living in the countries south of the border to enter the U.S. in any way they can. This has been happening for decades and continues even today. A stark reminder of that is the U.S.-Mexico border, south of the city of San Diego in California. On the U.S. side of the border is vast open land; some of it declared a protected area to conserve a particular bird species. On the other is the town of Tijuana, visible from the U.S. side, a dense urban settlement with houses almost touching the border. Separating the two countries is a steel fence that extends into the sea, slicing the shared beach into two. The entire area is a militarised zone with helicopters constantly buzzing overhead keeping an eye out for desperate immigrants trying to make their way across. Mexico and the U.S. are not at war. Yet, looking at that border, you would think they are.

But the story of the desperate immigrant begins thousands of miles away from this and other similar border posts all along the south of the U.S. And not just in Mexico but even further south. It is also a gendered story, with many of those taking enormous risks to cross what appears an impenetrable border being women. These are single mothers, sisters, aunts — women who are convinced that by crossing over they will guarantee their families a better life. And, as legal immigration appears impossible, they risk taking the illegal route.

The film follows some of these women from the impoverished country of El Salvador, south of Mexico, to the U.S. border. What they encounter en route is a grim and frightening story. That they survive is a miracle; others like them are raped, robbed, kidnapped and killed by criminal gangs along the way. Their own government couldn’t care less. And neither does Mexico. If there is any solace, it comes from voluntary immigrant support groups who provide shelter and food.

One remarkable episode in the film shows a group of women who prepare packets of water and food every day. As a freight train carrying scores of these migrants passes their village, they stand near the tracks and pass out the packets. The train does not stop. It doesn’t even slow down. And yet, these women have figured out a way of getting all their packets to the people hanging on for dear life on the roofs of these trains.

Apart from bringing out the dangers that these women and men face even as they make their way to the American border, the film also reminds us of the gender dimension of immigration. The immigrant — legal or illegal — is not just a man. Increasingly, she is a woman.

In Asia too, women are migrating to other countries to find work and money to support their families. Over the years, women from Southeast Asia (the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia) and South Asia (Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan) have been migrating not just to West Asia but further afield to Europe and the U.S. Unlike the women depicted in the documentary, many of these women are legal migrants. Yet, quite often, the job they think they will do turns out to be something else. Promised jobs as domestic help, for instance, they find themselves in the so-called ‘entertainment’ industry, another name for commercial sex work.

Many of these stories are never recorded. The illegal immigrants constantly fear being found out and deported. And those who have papers fear that if they report ill treatment, they will lose their jobs. Either way, silence is their only option as even the hardships they confront in the countries in which they work are bearable compared to the poverty — and in the case of women, domestic violence — that is the daily burden of their lives at home.

There are many more films waiting to be made, many more books waiting to be written, that will tell these stories. For only then is their hope that countries and their citizens will view the migrant sympathetically and as a person whose only ‘crime’ is to seek a better life. 

(To read the original, click here.)

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