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As DC fights over immigration, a documentary shows reality from the front lines

Latin American migrants ride on a train through Mexico toward the U.S. border. (Credit: Marc Silver)

The debate over immigration is once again taking off in the United States. The sudden influx of more than 57,000 children having illegally entered the US sparked calls for immediate action by all sides. President Obama, for his part, went to Congress with an appeal for $3.7 billion in emergency funding that will provide support for the children and speed up the deportation process.

While all sides try to find common ground for agreement, a new documentary enters the conversation at an important time. Who is Dayani Cristal? depicts the consequences of an increased US border presence and wall building to stem the flow of illegal immigration. Rather than give up, people are turning to Arizona’s vast desert to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

The erection of walls and provision of border patrol has not deterred people from continuing to find a way to get into the US. It is estimated that 11 million people entered the US unauthorized in 2013. Nearly half of the adult immigrants are parents of young children. Some 2,000 bodies have been found in the Arizona desert over the past decade.

Roughly 700 of those have yet to be identified. Bodies are found in poor condition and often times with out any official identification. This is done for the sake of protection, but makes it hard to know who the person was.

The film begins with a discovery. A dead body left out for days does not have any identification. The only distinguishable marking is a tattoo of the name Dayani Cristal. Viewers then embark on the process of how the US cooperates with Mexico and other countries to identify and repatriate people who have died trying to enter the US.

Director Marc Silver learned about this emerging issue when he asked people to submit suggested ideas for issues to cover, through his website. He traveled to Arizona to embed with the agencies on the ground in August 2010.

A second story progresses amid the main plot. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal travels the path that thousands if not more migrants take into the US each year. The same route that the deceased man may have taken before reaching Arizona.

“His challenge was somehow being simultaneously the man whose story we were following and in other ways being an everyman, partly himself and also the people we met on the road,” explained co-producer Lucas Ochoa.

The two previously worked together on a series of short films, called the Invisibles. It focuses on the on migrants waiting in a Mexican shelter along their path to the US, commissioned by Amnesty Intentional.

“Meeting the people in the shelters who did not know where they were going was more palpable than being in the morgue,” said Silver.

Stacks of folders represent the thousands of migrants who have died entering Arizona.
Stacks of folders represent the thousands of migrants who have died entering Arizona.
Marc Silver

The newer full length documentary shows what happens before and after people make it to these shelters. Journeying back to the community and meeting the family of the deceased man helps explain why he tried to go to the US. Despite the fact that the man died, young people from the community still desire to go to the US.

“The story of the guy who died doesn’t make any difference,” said Silver. Knowing about the wall doesn’t make a difference, knowing about the kidnappings doesn’t make a difference.”

In showing the film, Silver says he has learned that most people do not think that the story of migration begins before the wall. He hopes that it forces people to consider what is happening on the other side and understand why people are trying to leave their homes for the US.

“Unless you talk about the economics at home, you are not going to change the way that people think about leaving,” he said.

Congressional opponents to Obama’s plan, mostly Republicans, are concerned that the bill will create a de facto amnesty and encourage more people from Latin America to come to the US. International leaders from the UN to the Pope have weighed in on the issue. Officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees say that the children should be classified as refugees, granting them more protections.

“The U.S. and Mexico should recognize that this is a refugee situation, which implies that they shouldn’t be automatically sent to their home countries but rather receive international protection,” said the UN agency.

skull in desert (2)
Marc Silver

It points to the factors that exist in the countries where people are leaving as significant factors in Migration. Violence and rights violations are experienced by people living in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. The President of Honduras recently said that migrants from his country were displaced by war, meaning that they are refugees.

The consequences of what is decided is immense. Lives are at stake over how the US decides to pursue its immigration policies. Silver’s film shows that there are deadly consequences.

“I am interested in how people making policy decisions thousands of miles away can lead to the worst possible outcome, death,” said Silver. “There is no way me and my friends wouldn’t make the same journey, if we were living in a place where we could not provide for our families.”

The hand of the deceased man featured in the film, found in the Arizona desert.
The hand of the deceased man featured in the film, found in the Arizona desert.
Marc Silver

Note: Included in the film’s campaign are actionable steps that people can take on the issue of immigration. For those interested, you can go here.”


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]