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Film heats up immigration debate

'Arizona' documents deadly border-crossings

Joseph Mathew's "Crossing Arizona" features Mike Wilson, a Native American who replenishes water stations each week on the tribal lands for immigrant travelers.
Joseph Mathew's "Crossing Arizona" features Mike Wilson, a Native American who replenishes water stations each week on the tribal lands for immigrant travelers.

PARK CITY — A battle involving frustrated ranchers, watchful Minutemen, local activists, desperate migrants, humane workers — and even the Border Patrol and policymakers — is raging along the Mexico-Arizona border.

Each year, more than 1 million undocumented migrants attempt the dangerous journey across the border and through the deserts of Arizona, seeking higher-paying jobs in the United States. At least 464 died last year making the quest — some officials estimate two to three times that number — mostly from dehydration.

"People get the impression that the border is wide open and anyone can walk through it," said Joseph Mathew, director of the documentary "Crossing Arizona," which made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. "It's not open. It's hard to get through."

Although opinions differ on whether migrants feed the economy or deplete taxes, the various sides agree on one thing: Nobody deserves to die in search of a better life.

The film took Mathew and his crew two years to create and was finished weeks before the festival. It premiered one month before a Border Patrol bill will be heard by the U.S. Senate in February. That bill was passed last year by the U.S. House.

"I think it's the most Draconian bill the House has passed. It's a terrible idea. It doesn't tackle the rights of the immigrant at all. Building a wall is not the solution," Mathew told the Deseret Morning News from the Sundance filmmakers lodge in Park City. "It will just make it worse. It will make the humanitarian crisis even worse."

After Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas, in 1993 and Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego in 1994 closed huge border crossings, Arizona has been the immigration focal point.

Many take remote, rural trails to avoid the Border Patrol, including trails on the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, private ranches and other areas along the thousands of miles of Arizona borderlands. Most walk four to five days in 100-degree heat — a trek "Crossing Arizona" looks at closely through the eyes of numerous characters, including:

Native American Mike Wilson, who replenishes water stations each week that he maintains on the tribal lands for migrant travelers.

A rancher who laments he's spent $1 million repairing fences, patching water lines and buying new cattle destroyed by migrants.

A young Mexican couple that expresses the urgency of the travel they will make to America for a richer life — the wife is two months pregnant.

Chris Simcox, the leader of Civil Homeland Defense and founder of the Minuteman Project, who sits with the armed citizen group near the border, waiting to turn illegal immigrants in to the Border Patrol.

Douglas, Ariz., Mayor Ray Borane, who daily sees the impacts on his town from illegal immigration and criticizes current border policy.

"It's the same old, same old enforcement at the border and that's not going to work, it's not going to get it. The solution lies in something different. It's diplomatic and political," Borane said.

At its premiere, the film elicited a heated political debate from filmgoers — members of the Utah Minutemen. Some were invited to the movie; a handful protested outside the theater.

"As a documentary, the film was a fake," said Russell Sias, a Provo resident, co-chairman of Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement (UFIRE) and a member of the Utah Minuteman, who spent a winter patrolling the borders. "A documentary, to me, has to present all sides of an issue. That film only presented one. It was designed to pluck at your heartstrings and say, 'Oh, those poor abused people, we need to help them.' No, we don't.

"Dying in the desert is not a just penalty for breaking our laws. But they (immigrants) took that risk."

The film's debut in Utah comes in the midst of numerous local hot-button immigration issues, including two bills being considered by the Utah Legislature. HB64 repeals driver privilege cards and HB7 appeals in-state tuition for some undocumented immigrants. There is also a fair housing lawsuit pending against Summit County that alleges the county isn't providing affordable housing for minorities.

Director Mathew knew the story was controversial, but it urgently needed to be told, he said. The humanitarian crisis was what drew him in. It was an issue he wanted to have a face (and film) for the public to see — especially, he said, when the prevailing viewpoint shown in the media is that of the Minutemen.

"You find more and more women and children crossing the border," he said. "It's this whole snowballing crisis that is getting worse."

Producer and editor Dan DeVivo found it important to include clips of the wide-ranging relevance, such as the recent George W. Bush and John Kerry presidential debates surrounding immigration.

"These are issues that are not only important in Arizona, they are on a national stage," he said of the film.

DeVivo said the discussion boils down to being a good neighbor. The film argues America has hurt the Mexican farming industry through current NAFTA trading policies. And while he said a country has a right to defend its borders, "The question our film asks is: 'Do we have any sort of moral obligation for our neighbor?' We have a moral obligation to make sure their people get here without dying."

Two other festival films also focus on illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border: Tin Dirdamal's documentary "DeNADIE" and Pablo Veliz's drama "La Tragedia de Macario." "Crossing Arizona" will screen again in Park City on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. in the Prospector Square Theater and Friday at 3:15 p.m. in the Holiday Village Cinema.