Executive Order: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements

Degrees of Separation
Jeff Reichert on From the Other Side

When Donald J. Trump launched his unlikely bid for the presidency on June 16, 2015, his announcement speech contained this now notorious passage:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

So often those who cross over to the United States from Mexico take charge of caring for our children, clean our homes, pick our fruits and vegetables, perform dangerous construction tasks. In his speech, Trump suggests that the undocumented should also assume the role of collective bogeyman for America’s nativist fringe. Here again we find an uncomfortable dynamic repeated: Mexican immigrants being asked by a wealthy white person to tackle a job no white American would do.

In that same speech, Trump proposed a solution to quell the flood of rapists and drug dealers spilling across our borders:

I will build a great wall—and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me—and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.

Over the course of the campaign this “great, great wall” would morph into a “big, beautiful wall” with “a big, fat beautiful door right in the middle.” This wall would become the sole unifying image of a campaign that variously tried on populism, anti-Semitism, corporatism, and outright fascism—a nightmarish political drag show the likes of which America has never seen.

Most of us never expected that wall would ever come into being because most of us never expected that Donald Trump would become president. Yet on January 25, 2017, from his new perch in the Oval Office, he signed the wall-mandating Executive Order on “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” one of the longest and most detailed of his initial flurry of attempts at governance by decree.

Sec. 4. Physical Security of the Southern Border of the United States. The Secretary shall immediately take the following steps to obtain complete operational control, as determined by the Secretary, of the southern border:

(a) In accordance with existing law, including the Secure Fence Act and IIRIRA, take all appropriate steps to immediately plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border, using appropriate materials and technology to most effectively achieve complete operational control of the southern border.

Not long after 9/11, Chantal Akerman heard stories about how tightening U.S. immigration policies at traditional crossing-over points like San Diego had driven the desperate to head east and attempt to navigate the arid Sonoran desert into the U.S. This was in the aftermath of Clinton-era INS Commissioner Doris Meisner’s highly publicized and debated Operation Gatekeeper, which stemmed the flow of travelers across our westernmost border with Mexico, but also caused a spike in deaths due to the dangerous conditions of the desert trek, and exploded the market for human smugglers (or “coyotes”) to guide the way.

Akerman spent a few months jockeying between Mexico’s Agua Prieta and its much smaller cross-border twin Douglas, Arizona. The resulting film, From the Other Side, the third of her four directional documentaries (the others: Sud, D’est, and Là-bas), eschews a head-on approach to border politics, preferring instead to wind around and around, inch closer to the heart of the matter, only to pull back, and leave us to our own conclusions. It doesn’t function as a unified piece of beginning-to-end storytelling; rather it episodically captures Akerman’s immersion in this border area and gradually builds force through the accumulated weight of the testimony shared.

Like the rest of her documentaries, it’s an aesthetically uncluttered work—the film intersperses a handful of to-camera interviews with lingering landscape shots and long traveling sequences. Most of the film’s images are of a smeary early-aughts digital video that almost seems to soak up the dust from the air. The film’s final sequence, a night drive heading into Los Angeles shot on film, features Akerman’s voiceover relating the story of a migrant worker she’d met who disappeared in California. It’s completely fictional, but in the world of the film wholly believable, and as a conclusion to what’s preceded, it’s devastating.

Akerman’s approach is simple yet omnivorous. Her interviews are generous. She lets her subjects speak for themselves, and at length. She doesn’t wallpaper over their testimony with b-roll, and if she needs an edit, she fades quickly to black and cuts sharply back in. We hear from mothers and fathers who have lost sons, boys who have lost brothers. The leader of a group of attempted migrants reads to camera written testimony from a sheet of paper: “If the United States refuses to give illegals a chance, and doesn’t appreciate the value of their manpower, then God forgive us, them and us. Because some have it all and some have nothing.” But her camera always returns unerringly to the landscape, and the existent wall that splits it.

Sec. 3. Definitions. (e) “Wall” shall mean a contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier.

The wall we see in From the Other Side takes many forms. In the thick of Agua Prieta, it’s sheets of corrugated tin—ten, maybe fifteen, feet high. Near the actual border crossing point, it’s a more recognizable mass of sandy concrete. In one shot taken from the outskirts of town we see a patchwork of walls stuck together: high concrete connects to flimsier tin, which gives way to a series of poles sunk in the ground, seemingly awaiting some panel to bind them. Between the poles you can glimpse U.S. border patrol agents stalking the other side in the sun, guns at the ready. When Akerman ventures out into the desert at night, her camera captures sections of destroyed fencing, a border perimeter decayed into tendrils of sagging barbed wire.

Houses press close to the wall on the Agua Prieta side—only a thin strip of dirt, used as passage for dogs and cars, or as an impromptu soccer pitch, separates homes from the border. What was the relationship between Agua Prieta and Douglas prior to the erection of these thin dividers? What exactly is being kept out and what kept in? These days, those on the Mexican side might be glad for any protection from us.

In one bravura shot, Akerman drives alongside the wall in Agua Prieta, then turns her car 180 degrees to head in the other direction, revealing small homes receding into the distance, and all the different kinds of partitioning used to keep them separated from each other. Walls within walls. Mankind loves a good partition. She films the border wall in as many different ways as she can. It’s sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, always improbable, always an intrusion into the frame. At one point the shadow of an unseen tree spills across the road and creeps up the side of it.

The physical impossibility and implausibility of Trump’s “big, beautiful” wall may well have caught up with the current administration given the volume of recent backpedaling, from the ridiculous discussion of sections of “digital” wall, to Sean Spicer’s fatuous attempt to define for the White House press corps what a fence is and what is not, and, finally, Trump’s pathetic capitulation on wall funding in the recent short term spending bill. I wonder what Akerman, were she still alive, and with her experience of the existing border (far beyond what Trump learned in his August 2015 tough-guy photo-op), would think of Trump’s wall mania. Her film amply documents what is already there, and the consequences it has engendered.

Sec. 11. Parole, Asylum, and Removal. It is the policy of the executive branch to end the abuse of parole and asylum provisions currently used to prevent the lawful removal of removable aliens.

(b) The Secretary shall take all appropriate action, including by promulgating any appropriate regulations, to ensure that asylum referrals and credible fear determinations pursuant to section 235(b)(1) of the INA (8 U.S.C. 1125(b)(1)) and 8 CFR 208.30, and reasonable fear determinations pursuant to 8 CFR 208.31, are conducted in a manner consistent with the plain language of those provisions.

A fear determination is a process by which a migrant seeking asylum in the U.S. has the opportunity to demonstrate to authorities that returning home might put his or her life at risk. If their argument is compelling enough, they will remain safe from deportation. Fear abounds in From the Other Side, but it’s not where you might expect to find it. In Mexico, Akerman documents sadness at the loss of loved ones, anguish in the face of stagnant pittance wages, hope at the possibility of finding a better life. However, in Douglas, she finds widespread anxiety. Akerman interviews an Anglo husband-wife rancher duo. In the wake of 9/11 the wife feels that “tomorrow may never come . . . life is short.” Her husband admits no compunction about the idea of shooting migrants found on his property dead, imagining them coming for him with sticks and knives. This free-floating paranoia has been one of the defining political features of post-9/11 America. It’s the same worry that leads townships in Oklahoma to wage war against the nonexistent encroachment of Sharia Law, and militants in the Louisiana bayou to gird themselves for war. From the Other Side’s Douglas sections act almost like a prequel to Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side.

Near Douglas, Akerman lets her camera linger on a sign that reads: “Stop the Crime Wave! Our Property and Environment Is Being Trashed by Invaders!” – Article IV - Section 4. The text of that article in the U.S. Constitution is as follows: “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; and on application of the legislature, or of the executive (when the legislature cannot be convened) against domestic violence.”

The idea of a Mexican invasion is belied by what Akerman captures in From the Other Side. The Mexicans she meets are aspirational, seeking not to conquer, but merely to find better ways to provide for their families. If their movement North is an invasion, it’s a horribly lonely, inefficient one—the Consul of Mexico in Douglas, tasked with protecting the rights of his citizens abroad, admits to spending more and more time calling the families of the dead. Meanwhile, an Anglo sheriff describes his frustration in the face of locals who have started to take matters into their own hands and detain (or worse) migrants caught on their property. It’s a highly combustible mixture of desperate measures, incoherent and inadequate policies, and disproportionate citizen responses. The sheriff notes that Doris Meisner admitted her mistakes; Akerman knowingly replies, “She was never hungry.”

Another tracking shot out her car window near Douglas captures a vast expanse of empty landscape. Why do Americans demand so much, when there seems to be much that could be shared? Some have it all, some have nothing.

Section 1. Purpose. Border security is critically important to the national security of the United States. Aliens who illegally enter the United States without inspection or admission present a significant threat to national security and public safety . . . Transnational criminal organizations operate sophisticated drug- and human-trafficking networks and smuggling operations on both sides of the southern border, contributing to a significant increase in violent crime and United States deaths from dangerous drugs. Among those who illegally enter are those who seek to harm Americans through acts of terror or criminal conduct. Continued illegal immigration presents a clear and present danger to the interests of the United States.

In a few scenes, Akerman documents the work of INS agents waging what one describes, while delivering a eulogy for a fallen comrade as, “a daily war.” At night, the spotlight from a helicopter illuminates smaller beams of handheld flashlights on a hill in the distance. Are these agents tracking down their prey? Or are they held by their prey, fleeing capture? Black-and-white drone footage, whose visual texture has become sadly familiar in life and documentary, captures a line of undocumented streaming across the border. The soundtrack captures the celebratory hoots and hollers of hunters spotting the hunted; now they can swoop in and make arrests, stop the bad hombres. It’s strange, though, how much the white bodies moving slowly in a line across the blackness look like a stream of energy, of life.

This is the marvel of From the Other Side—it’s a constant reminder of lives at stake. Trump’s executive order can bluster about clear and present danger, trafficking networks, and smuggling operations. Akerman offers up Delfina Maruri Miranda, aged 71, staring into the camera, thinking about her child lost in the crossing, and whispering, “My poor son.” Nations and citizens deserve safety, and have the right to take measures to provide for that. But a wall cannot prevent suffering, and won’t stop people from looking for better lives. It didn’t when Akerman visited the border in 2001, it won’t now, and it never will. Akerman doesn’t despair in the face of our obliviousness to this fact; she just watches and records.

As he asked, Trump’s words promising to build a wall have been marked. And, thankfully, like so many of his promises it’s proven thus far to be empty. There will be no wall. There can’t be. We may always be stuck with borders, but we can hope for more humane ones, ones that would preclude a film like From the Other Side from needing to exist.