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Bodies on the Border

This summer, as discussions have advanced around a comprehensive immigration reform bill, I traveled to Arizona to film some people who have a unique perspective on border security. I followed Dr. Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, who has worked to identify the remains of some 2,200 people found dead in the Arizona desert since 1990 — undocumented migrants who attempted to cross illicitly from Central America and Mexico into the United States. And I followed Robin Reineke, a University of Arizona doctoral student in anthropology who founded the Missing Migrant Project, a nongovernmental organization that helps families look for their missing relatives.

My goal was to better understand the impact that President Obama’s and Congress’s proposed security measures might have on migrant deaths along the border. I’ve been exploring this issue for the last four years while making a feature-length documentary, “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” (That film follows the discovery, identification and repatriation of a migrant found dead under a cicada tree 20 minutes south of Tucson.)

There has been a dramatic increase in such deaths since 2000. Over that time, particularly after Sept. 11, 2001, the government has added thousands of guards and constructed fences along the border. This policy has had a grim consequence: since most remaining gaps in the border are in remote and harsh terrain, migrants now attempt increasingly dangerous routes into the United States.

Some may argue that the latest proposals for tighter border security could save lives — by flooding the border with guards, cameras and drones that could spot and help intercept migrants in dangerous areas. Yet recent history shows that even when border security is tightened, people will still find a way to cross — as long as there is a demand for low-wage jobs. Even as fewer people are believed to be crossing the border illegally, the number of migrant deaths has remained high (the remains of at least 116 people have been found this year in Arizona), and a greater proportion is likely dying.

As a British filmmaker, I don’t perceive this as a uniquely American issue, even if the politics are local. Similar migrant deaths have recently resulted from capsized boats in the Mediterranean Sea, filled with migrants from Africa and the Middle East, and in the seas north of Australia. Around the globe, it’s clear that economic disparity, political instability and harsh immigration policies are a combustible mix — one that plays out tragically along national borders.