Little Immigrants. Directed by Sonia Fritz and Frances Lausell. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2008. 42 minutes.
Harvest of Loneliness: The Bracero Program. Directed by Gilbert G. Gonzalez, Vivian Price, and Adrian Salinas. New York: Films Media Group, 2010. 58 minutes.
AbUSed: The Postville Raid. Directed by Luis Argueta. New York: Maya Media, 2010. 97 minutes.
What better time than now to watch these three documentaries! As the Republican and Democratic parties muscle each other for the toughest position on immigration, the realities of desperation and determination, as well as devotion to the procurement of a decent life, serve only as background noise to politicians stoking division, suspicion, and fear whilst developing policy proposals to toughen national borders.1 The three documentaries reviewed here show a shift from aggressive patrolling and securitizing of borders between the United States and Mexico, to an increase in the policing of bodies defined and depicted as “othered.” These films provide evidence of the hardening of borders as political capital in the ascension of a right-wing cultural hegemony in sync with the economic needs of an American neoliberal economy.2
Little Immigrants focuses on minors (under 18 years of age) left behind in Mexico and whose parents (mothers in the film) moved and “settled” in the United States without papers and laboring in low-wage jobs. Whereas in the past this separation often was temporary because of easier mobility across the US-Mexico border, today tighter restrictions imposed by federal government policy requires parents to return to Mexico and possibly be unable to re-enter the United States since they lack proper documentation. As a result of this catch-22, children are raised by their grandmothers or extended family members on the money parents remit from the United States. Transnational parenting is reduced to funding households and intimacy is mediated by technologies like Skype. Moreover, these restrictions tie parents to the performance of low-wage jobs so crucial to the post-industrial and post-Fordist economy of the United States, thus ensuring that they live a precarious and vulnerable life.3
In this case study, the film follows a mother in Arizona who pays a coyote to bring her two children and their grandmother, all of whom she hasn’t seen in ten years, to the United States.4 The stress and anxiety she endures while waiting for news of her family is palpable. This story is intermixed with discussions of more aggressive state and federal stances about securing the border, which are reflected in investments, such as more officers and more sophisticated technology to track bodies in the borderlands. And paramilitary forces like the Minute Men deploy vigilante groups along the border to do what they think their government isn’t doing enough of—guard even more zealously and intently by harassing would-be border jumpers.
While Little Immigrants offers a poignant portrayal of how the US-Mexico border affects Mexican families, it could explore the issue in a more sustained and coherent way.5 For example, there is no history of the migration of children across borders around the world, undocumented or not. According to the film an estimated 40,000 youth have undertaken such travel, but we do not know where they come from, what journeys they have endured, and what hopes and dreams they carry beyond those they themselves hold. Nor do we learn how many of this number are girls and what specific difficulties they experience in their treacherous journey to proletarianization in the United States.
Harvest of Loneliness describes the origin, implementation, and timeline of the Bracero Program between the United States and Mexico primarily through accounts from the men (and their wives) who participated in it, and augmented by interviews with American activists working to ensure workers had sympathetic supporters.6 The class aspect of the bracero program is the main narrative in the film, and the documentary does an excellent job conveying how working-class Mexicans endured exploitation and reacted to the program’s harshest aspects.
A starker and more disturbing narrative about the racialization of Mexicans accompanies that of class. This is evident in the poor conditions and tight surveillance Bracero participants endure as Americans implementing the program guard and protect whiteness (eugenics really), manifested in practices to ensure Mexicans not only were “cheap” and easily manipulated but were never to be white. Workers lived in barracks miles from white neighborhoods and interacted only with their white employers or their Mexican brethren. They underwent examinations by doctors in Mexico and their medical counterparts in the United States. The men interviewed in the film also speak about being stripped naked while their bodies, clothes, and “odors” were cleansed with a spray that was applied with an apparatus consisting of a hose and tank, similar to that which one would use to fumigate rats.7 Though this classism and racism was implicit in the testimonies of the men interviewed, their anger remains many years later as they recollect this humiliating experience of “cleansing” and othering. Many say that had they known what they would be subjected to in the Bracero program, they would have remained in Mexico.
The third film in this review is AbUSed, which focuses on a raid of a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. The government captured and detained approximately three hundred men and women from the plant and subsequently deported them to their countries of origin—Guatemala and Mexico. According to the film, this assault on Postville disrupted a harmonious community where Mexicans, Guatemalans, Irish, Germans, Russians, and others lived side-by-side in a town of two thousand. In the process of abducting the workers and locking them up in a school gym for “processing,” the US agency in charge violated several statutes including the right to a fair and objective hearing and proper legal representation. Despite protests, the “hearings” proceeded and mass deportations ensued. The film describes the events leading up to the raid, the situation of the workers arrested, and the resulting changes the US government made regarding the employment of minors and the penalties imposed on those who knowingly employed minors.
To set the background to the meatpacking business in Iowa, the film discusses the restructuring of the industry and the relocation of such business to the hinterlands of the United States. The availability of a growing number of cheap and vulnerable laborers in conjunction with local government tax incentives, assistance with infrastructure development, and control of trade union activity have facilitated the growth of these plants far from urban centers like Chicago. Though not everyone has welcomed this influx, most residents who are not Mexican or Guatemalan—especially those affiliated with religious organizations—demonstrated in support of the workers and against the action of the American government. Individuals insisted on attending public hearings on the detention of undocumented workers, rallied in the streets, and organized meetings with US officials visiting the community to assess the impact of the raid and the role the meatpacking employer played. It turns out that the employer was a repeat violator of labor rights with no regard for the equitable treatment of workers. As a result of these meetings and employees’ testimonies of abuse and exploitation (some of whom were employed at the age of 15 and worked ten-hour days), fines and jail time were levied on the plant owners. In this way workers and their supporters experienced a sense of justice, though many families were permanently separated as parents once deported could not return to Iowa (or indeed to the United States) to rejoin their families. (In rare cases, activists were able to bring back to Iowa a parent who had been deported.) Nevertheless, the film ends on a positive note by showing how an organized community and committed activists got the US government to punish an employer for knowingly hiring undocumented and underage workers. In rare cases, activists were also able to bring back to Iowa a parent who had been deported. However, the event depicted in this film is an anomaly since most situations and conditions undocumented workers find themselves in go unheralded as humanitarianism takes a back seat to politics and militant discourses about “unwanted” immigrants in various parts of the country.
After viewing these three documentaries, I remain even more in awe of the capacity of people to endure conditions of extreme disadvantage while seeking to alleviate a social and political system (on both sides of the border) that cannot respond to or address their human needs. In this context, the pursuit of economic alternatives is understandable and even commendable. Who amongst us would not do the same to secure the potential for economic gains for our loved ones?!
1 See Michael Tomasky, “Trump,” New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015, 12-16.
2 See Leo Panitch and Greg Albo, ed.,“The Politics of the Right,” Special Issue, The Socialist Register, 2015.
3 See Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).
4 “Coyote” is the term used for someone who engages in the practice of smuggling people across the U.S.-Mexico border.
5 While not exactly on this topic, see the recently published and excellent book by Carola Suárez-Orozco, Mona M. Abo-Zena, and Amy K. Marks, eds., Transitions: The Development of Children of Immigrants (New York: NYU Press, 2015).
6 On this see Don Mitchell, They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012).
7 For the detailing of a similar labour recruitment scheme on the east coast of the United States, see the excellent documentary H2 Worker, dir. Stephanie Black (Los Angeles: Cinedigm, 1991), 70 mins.