USCRI: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants

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Emmy-Winning Film Documents the Journey of Child Migrants

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Rebecca Cammisa and Kevin, one of the children featured in her film Which Way Home.
USCRI sat down with director Rebecca Cammisa, whose Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary, Which Way Home, brings much needed attention to the plight of children traveling thousands of miles through South and Central America to the United States.  Each year, about 8,000 children, frequently led by smugglers, are stopped by the authorities as they try to cross the North American border.

USCRI's National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children, which works to protect and assist child migrants and keep them from becoming victims of traffickers, has partnered with Cammisa to help shine the light on this little-known threat to children.

USCRI: How did you get interested in the topic of child migrants?

Rebecca Cammisa: I had just finished another documentary film.  And a friend called me and said 'I know what film you need to do next.  It's about unaccompanied child migrants coming to the United States.'  And I'm like 'What? How?  I'm a news junkie.  How would I not have heard of this story?’[...]  The horrible things that happen to these children along the way [...]  We really need to document that because I don't think that people in the United States understand how arduous that journey is and how dangerous. And the children are doing it by themselves!

USCRI: As you were interviewing the children and making the film, what was the one thing that stood out?

RC: What I think is so incredible about the stories is how dehumanizing the situation is.  Whether you’re an adult migrant or a child migrant, once you get into Mexico you have to take that 1500-mile journey just to get to the northern border.  There are gangs that kill people, rob people, rape women, kidnap migrants for money.  There are all kinds of police corruption.  Then there are the dangers of jumping on freight trains and falling under the train wheels.  There are people who have to prostitute themselves just to get farther north.  People die.  In the film, two children are found dead and are brought back from the desert... People are forced into an incredibly dangerous and demeaning situation just to try and find a better life, and that's unacceptable.

USCRI: When you set out to do this documentary, what were you hoping to accomplish?

RC: When you make this kind of film, you want to change the world in a way.  You want to make a big impact.  And I had three major goals.  One was to create a document that allows the U.S. public to really see what's going on and then think about the immigration issue much deeper and make a decision about how they feel about it.  But an informed decision.  Don't have some pundit just talk at you and tell you what to feel.  See the film, look at it, experience it, ask questions, and maybe the U.S. public will come away with a deeper understanding.  That's number one.  Number two, a film like this has to work toward educating and informing people, including the highest levels of government and law makers. [...]  I wanted whatever administration was in to see this film, to learn from it, and to use it as a tool for positive, humane immigration reform.  And the third goal was [to inform] families in Central America and Mexico who don’t necessarily understand how dangerous the trip really is.  [The documentary] is a prevention campaign in a way... Families can see the film and go, 'Oh, yes, it does seem dangerous.  Maybe I will not let the smugglers take my child, or maybe 'I won't let the child go off by themselves.'  So that's another goal of the film.  To inform rural and indigenous populations about how dangerous [the journey north] is and that they should think twice about what to do.

USCRI: The film shows some parents even encouraging the children to take this dangerous journey to the United States. Were you able to understand where they were coming from?

RC: Poverty is the garden of tragedy in many ways.  It cultivates a lot of tragedy.  So poverty and economic issues, and also environmental issues such as hurricanes or things like that, create situations where people have to flee or get desperate to move on.  Those are the basic reasons.  [Most people] love their countries and don't want to leave, but they don't have any other choices.  But if poverty was alleviated, corruption was eradicated, education was made a primary goal, and relief was given to those who are in poverty, there'd be less tragedy in relation to immigration issues that we face.

USCRI: What was the most common reaction from the audience after seeing the film?

RC: We got tons of Facebook messages and emails. Viewers were writing 'I had no idea this situation even existed,' or 'Oh my God, this changes my view about immigrants or what those people suffer to get here.' [...]  The most important thing is, you've got a populous that knows nothing about [child migrants].  And when things like this go on and nothing is known about it, the same dangerous, horrible situations remain and nothing gets changed.  So now that there is more attention brought to the subject, the next step naturally is immigration reform policy change.

USCRI: The film shows how families are often torn apart.

RC: The issues of family reunification are a whole other can of worms.  If we're a country that really promotes family values, then that also should translate into the respecting the rights of immigrant families and their need to be together.  [...] One big problem with family reunification, and the reason why children are coming [to the United States] to try and find their parents and their parents don't go home for years and years, is because the circularity is broken.  The borders are sealed. [...]  That lockdown creates the smuggling price to go up.  People who don't have the money to pay into a criminal network never go home.  Their children never see them.  Those who can afford it have to rely on either smuggling their children, which is illegal and dangerous, or children just try and make it on their own.  If there were some sort of functional system, like a guest worker program, at least that circularity can be started again.  Parents could go work seasonally, then go home, then come back.  They would see their families and families wouldn't be broken or separated completely for years and years. [...]  I think that's a very functional approach. I know it's worked for the EU. Why wouldn't it work here?

USCRI: How frightening was it for you and your film crew to be on top of a moving train?

RC: It's a dangerous way to travel and you should have a healthy fear of that.  But we're filmmakers, so when we were on those trains, our main goal was to really document the insanity of the situation and also show the children in that setting. So a lot of our energy was spent on documenting rather than being afraid every two minutes.  But it's a scary way to go.


USCRI: How did you meet the children featured in the film? Was it difficult to get them to trust you?

RC: We went about it by going to the places where migrants congregate.  We knew children would show up, so we went to those places to find them.  And then we created a relationship with them.  Some children were afraid and scared, and of course we wouldn’t push it.  Other kids were very into it, and we immediately, after explaining what we're doing, contacted their parents to get permission.

USCRI: What was the one goal the kids you interviewed had in common?

RC: The goal was to get to the United States and the United States was going to fulfill their dreams, and they were going to achieve it at all costs.  Whether they wanted to reunify with a parent, or they wanted to help their family, or they wanted to go work in the United States and send money home, or they lived on the street and wanted to find a better life, they all thought the same thing.  ‘The United States will fulfill my dream and I’m going to go for it because I have nothing else to lose.'[...]  They're going after the American Dream!

USCRI: In terms of policy change, in your opinion, what would be the most effective approach?

RC: I'm sure there are specific laws that could be passed in the United States that could impact child migrants.  One is the DREAM Act [Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, a bill which was introduced in the U. S. Senate and House of Representatives on Mar. 26, 2009 and which would provide certain undocumented immigrant students, who graduate from U.S. high schools and have been in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment, the opportunity to earn conditional permanent residency].  But more importantly, there are a lot of great laws already in place in the United States and Mexico.  Let's speak about Mexico in particular.  There are a lot of great laws that are designed to protect people.  The problem is enforcement.  There's a lot of corruption and a lack of enforcement... [People] should be treated properly in all circumstances and not forced into making such dangerous decisions.  And once they do make that decision to migrate, they should not be exploited and harmed in the process. [...]  On both sides.  Immigrants here, if they are undocumented, they lead shadow existences.  They are treated badly.  They are treated like second-class citizen.  They are exploited.  Maybe they work and aren't paid, or they aren't paid well enough.

Learn more about the work of USCRI's National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children >>

Learn more about the film Which Way Home >> 

 

 

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