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A Dangerous Journey

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)   

By Amanda Roth

“You could say it’s a decision about death. Death is what you come up against most on the road,” says a pensive young man at a shelter on the Guatemala-Mexico border for migrants seeking to reach the United States.

The man, who appears in the new documentary, Who is Dayani Cristal?, is discussing the decision to risk his safety and security to try to build a better life in the U.S. The movie follows the fate of one migrant in particular – a Honduran man named Yohan Sandros Martinez – whose unidentified body is discovered in the Arizona desert.

Who is Dayani Cristal? follows actor Gael Garcia Bernal as he retraces the dangerous path taken by Martinez (known as Dayani Cristal in the film because of a distinctive tattoo across his chest) through Mexico and across the U.S. border. The documentary not only aims to capture the human side of migration, but also to bring to light the stark reality of the dangers faced by undocumented migrants trying to reach the United States. In looking at U.S./Mexico border trends, migrant deaths have remained a constant.

“Even as less people are crossing, more people comparatively are dying,” notes Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America. In 2012, the remains of 463 migrants were found on U.S. soil, the highest migrant-death count since 2005 (even though 2012 apprehensions were only a third of 2005 numbers). The percentage of migrants dying as they seek to cross into the United States is significantly larger today than in the past.

“A Policy of Death”

In 1994, U.S. immigration released the Border Patrol Strategic Plan for 1994 and Beyond, which outlined two operations to close traditional crossing routes. By closing existing paths, the plan would force migrants to “more hostile terrain” through the Sonora Desert that would place them “in mortal danger.” This increasing focus on border security along the most common routes has led migrants to follow more dangerous paths and cross through more remote areas.

“These deaths are directly attributed to U.S. policy. It’s basically a policy of death,” says Justin Mazzola of Amnesty International. As the policy has been implemented by installing more checkpoints, fences, and border patrol agents along the border, migrant deaths have risen to striking numbers.

While the United States is currently experiencing record low numbers of migrant apprehensions at the border, Mazzola and others are quick to point out that this reduction corresponds to the 2008 economic crisis rather than the shift in border policies. “You haven’t seen an impact on migration” numbers in response to the Strategic Plan, he notes. “What you’ve seen is the negative impact.”

The negative impact is clearly evident in Who is Dayani Cristal?, as the camera follows workers in Pima County, carefully sorting and cataloging belongings of anonymous migrants whose bodies have been found along the border. As comprehensive immigration reform continues to be alternately debated and deferred in Washington, the deaths in Arizona, Texas, and California continue at an alarming rate.

“The dehumanization of migrants is something I think has allowed this to happen,” says Robin Reineke, founder and executive director of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, in the film. “We see a law, and we see a law-breaker. Illegality comes first, before someone’s life…I would think we’d want to be human, before we’d want to see people as legal or illegal. These people, as much as they’re invisible in life, they’re invisible in death, in many ways.”

“A Job-Creation Scheme for Human Traffickers”

The U.S.-Mexico border is not the only one that has becoming increasingly dangerous. In October of last year, a ship carrying African migrants seeking refuge in Italy capsized in the Mediterranean, killing 366 people and drawing attention to the increasingly lethal migrant crossings. The safety conditions aboard the ship were deplorable, leading to a terrible end for hundreds of desperate refugees fleeing violence and hardship in their home countries.

In addition to the ship’s captain, a Somali man associated with an armed gang was arrested in connection with the shipwreck, charged with inhumane treatment and torture of the ship’s passengers, who paid the gang thousands of dollars in exchange for passage. Increased patrols and heavier surveillance encourage migrants to pay smugglers to help them across the ocean, and trafficking rings are often linked to larger criminal networks engaged in other illicit activities. Speaking with Der Spiegel last year, attorney Reinhard Marx, author of a memorandum suggesting reforms to the EU immigration system, called the current system “a job-creation scheme for human traffickers.”

This is increasingly the case in the Americas as well. A growing share of undocumented immigrants to the United States are from Central American countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world. Tightened U.S. border security has led more of these migrants to pay traffickers to smuggle them through Mexico, and the increasingly lucrative business has attracted the attention of criminal networks and drug trafficking gangs in the country.

“What we’ve seen in Mexico in the last five or six years is that criminal groups, beginning with the Zetas, [one of Mexico’s largest drug trafficking organizations], started to get involved in extorting and kidnapping migrants,” says Meyers, making the journey even more dangerous. “Criminal groups control the whole route, and migrants are subject to torture, extortion, sexual assault… any kind of horrible thing you can imagine.”

“This is the Wager”

As Bernal traces Martinez’s journey through Honduras, Mexico, and eventually to the United States, the risks to his safety and security are palpable. The film, which won an award for cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival, manages to capture both the beauty and the desperation of his journey.

Bernal seems touched by the camaraderie he experiences from fellow migrants as he makes the trip, singing songs and praying with the men around him (some of whom are on their third or fourth trip to the United States). Yet it is clear that he is also struck by the magnitude of their desperation and commitment.

After Bernal exchanges his quetzals for pesos on the Mexico-Guatemala border in order to secure his illegal passage on top of the train that winds its way through Mexico, he notes that Martinez likely spent most of his family’s money on this final gamble to earn money for his children. As he collects his money, he muses “And this is the wager. Can you make it across Mexico with your family’s future in your pocket?”

Martinez, like many of the other migrants featured in the film, gathered his life savings to pay a smuggler in order to make the trip. He thought he could earn enough money in the United States to provide a better a future for his children. But as we learn early in the film, his gamble didn’t pay off.

In both the United States and Europe, contentious debates about immigration – who to allow in and who to exclude – continue to rage. Yet the parties tend to reach consensus on the need for increased border security, even if they cannot agree what it will look like or how effective it has been in the past.

In Who is Dayani Cristal?, we are forced to confront the consequences of this consensus. Strict border controls are driving desperate migrants to face increasing danger, and empowering the criminal networks that capitalize on their desperation. As the film so poignantly asks, when do the costs become too great?

*****

This is the second in a series of Arts-Policy articles examining global migration through a cinematic lens. Tune in in two weeks for part three.

*****

This discussion is part of the World Policy Salon series, which are made possible through the support of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung North America. World Policy Salons promote dialogue among the next generation of leaders in business, policy, and the media, regularly convening midcareer professionals to discuss a range of foreign policy issues and global affairs.

Amanda Roth is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a current graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

[All photos courtesy of Athena Cinema]

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