A migrant rides “La Bestia” through Mexico. Courtesy Marc Silver.

By Anne Ginsberg

In the current attempt at reforming immigration policy, debates around the costs associated the Corker-Hoeven Amendment, a.k.a. the ‘border surge,’ frequently surround its legitimacy as an expense. Rarely do we hear of the cost in human lives- which continues to rise even as apprehensions plummet. In fact a report b y the ACLU and Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights declares conditions on the border a humanitarian crisis.

For the past two decades, Operation Gatekeeper has concentrated enforcement presence in heavily populated urban areas, effectively shuttling migrants to remote and inhospitable environments like the Sonoran desert. The reasoning behind it is that the journey is so perilous it would deter people from attempting to cross it. Predictably, the report argues, this has only increased dependence on smugglers and ultimately lead to more migrant deaths. In 2012 alone, the U.S. Border Patrol reported 463 migrants died trying to cross the U.S.–Mexico border– about one death every day. More than 5,000 have died since Operation Gatekeeper went into effect in 1994. Many more bodies of those who undertook the dangerous journey are never recovered.

In the forthcoming film, Who is Dayani Cristal?, we meet the people who are working on the front lines of Tuscon, AZ, to identify and repatriate the remains of men, women and children who never made it across the merciless terrain of the desert. From his death unfolds the story of his life, revealing the harsh reality of migration across international borders. The film’s director, Marc Silver, introduces his film in last Sunday’s New York Times Op Docs.  I had the opportunity to interview Silver via email about this documentary and the issue of undocumented immigration.

Anne Ginsberg: What inspired you to focus on this particular story of identifying the body of a migrant?

Marc Silver: We launched a website a while back, that asked people to help in our research [for this film] and send in stories about divisions between rich and poor.  One of these stories was about police finding unidentified skulls in the deserts of Arizona. I remember seeing an image of a Border Patrol agent holding a skull in a vast empty landscape, which I later learned was the Sonora desert. I thought that following the investigation into an unidentified skull was a fascinating and poetic way of exploring the dehumanisation of migrants.  I literally asked myself, ‘What can a skull in an empty desert tell you about the world?’ My question was less a ‘who done’ it?’ but rather in a wider way, a ‘what happened?’

AG: How did you get access to these spaces, such as the morgue?  

MS: We made several trips to Tucson to meet with the Search and Rescue teams, the forensics teams in the Medical Examiner’s Office, the funeral homes and the consulates of Mexico and Honduras, as well as the migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Mexico to explain our intentions and to secure access. Each of them plays a very important part in the jigsaw puzzle of recovering and repatriating remains.

AG: Why is it important to hear the perspectives of the people directly involved in this process?

MS: It was essential for us to understand the story through their ‘hands on’ work. We didn’t want to make a film with ‘talking heads’ and ‘political pundits’, but rather we wanted to tell the story from the perspective of those who actually have to handle those who have died.

AG: What did you discover about the factors that drive people to migrate? And how does U.S. policy – and the current debate in Congress on immigration reform – address those factors?

MS: It seems to me that the current discussion in the new Immigration Reform Bill about the citizenship of 11 million undocumented being connected to the ‘closing of the border’ via a massive security operation somewhat misses the point. The discussion does not address the reasons people are leaving home, the push factors, which of course relate to transnational economic policies including NAFTA. Without discussing this, Congress is not addressing, and not changing, the reasons people leave home. In addition, they are also not addressing the pull factors and the U.S. economy’s reliance on migrant labour. As the forensic examiner Dr. Bruce Anderson says in our film “The U.S. economy relies on blue collar workers who have brown skin.”

AG: How do you see Who is Dayani Cristal? changing the discussion on immigration reform?

MS: I hope that we have created a documentary film that allows the audience the chance to leave the cinema with a feeling of deep empathy – that shifts their perspective on any prejudices they may have towards so called ‘illegals’ and ‘aliens.’

I want them to look at migrants in the knowledge that their journey did not just start easily on the other side of the Wall, but that they had to leave loved ones for very universal reasons, whilst hoping they will survive an incredibly dangerous journey across Mexico and into the U.S. And all this before they even try and get a job.

I want them to feel proud of the humanitarian work Americans are doing in helping to end other peoples’ pain by repatriating remains to families.

The storytelling itself has reminded me that we need to be able to understand and empathise with other people in order to care – facts and figures are not enough.  In a world where access to bites of information is everything, this process has bolstered my belief that emotive, aesthetically powerful long form documentary is essential in retaining an informed electorate, and in turn, a meaningful democracy.


Marc works worldwide as a filmmaker, director of photography and social impact strategist. His first feature length film Who is Dayani Cristal? premiered at the Sundance Festival 2013 where it won the Best Cinematography award. The film will be released in early 2014. See more of his work on his website. Follow him @marcsilverMS

Anne is an intern with Communications and External Relations team at WITNESS. 

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