Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but it is estimated that 2000-3000 people illegally enter the U.S. at the U.S.-Mexican border every day. In the 2010 fiscal year alone, the U.S. Border Patrol nabbed 447,000 would-be illegal immigrants along the southern border.1 In 2009, 417 were found dead, meeting their end in an attempt at a better life.2 For untold scores who strike north to the American border, the worry that they may die along the way takes a backseat to bigger dreams.
The opening scene of Which Way Home reflects this reality and sets the tone for the rest of the film: a border patrol squad fishes a dead body floating down the Rio Grande. Directed by Rebecca Cammisa, Which Way Home documents unaccompanied children and their harrowing journey to the United States. According to the filmmakers, of the tens of thousands who attempt the train crossing each year, at least five percent are children traveling alone. The film oscillates between a few children and the parents whom they have left behind. From the outset, our attention is commanded until the conclusion of this incessantly heart-wrenching exposé.
Which Way Home has no narration, but the subjects (children, parents, various government officials) have strong voices. It’s a smart approach—documentary in its purest form. The constant conversations of those on camera provide valuable insight into the children’s motivations for making the journey. The film easily transports the viewer into the sad and dangerous world of transnational migration.
While the movie follows different stories, the main storyline is that of Kevin (age 14) and Fito (13), two minors traveling north from Honduras. Their dream is to make it to the United States to earn money not only for a better life, but so they can send remittances to their families back home. Their stories are incredible for three reasons: first, although they are companions, Kevin and Fito are essentially traveling alone, without parents or guardians; second, they travel illegally across international borders, from Honduras to Guatemala to Mexico and, finally, to the United States; lastly, and perhaps most amazingly, is that they travel atop freight trains through tunnels, past mountains, and around dangerous curves. “The Beast,” as the trains are both affectionately and nefariously known, are responsible for the deaths of countless who fall while riding or attempting to mount the train, are caught and maimed under wheels, and many other horrors.
The boys’ journey to the American border stretches 1450 miles,equivalent to the distance between Dallas, Texas and Los Angeles, California. Think about that: Imagine traveling, at the tender age of 14, for nearly 1500 miles on top of a train, all while dodging corrupt officials, human and drug smugglers, rapists, thieving gangs, and border patrols, and fully cognizant that the chances of you successfully crossing the American border are pretty slim. And then you have only just reached the border—you still have to make it to your final destination of L.A., Chicago, New York, or wherever, by who knows what means. On top of all that, you might—just like the children in this film—get robbed by a gang, watch men get smacked off trains for not ducking before entering a tunnel, and witness a brutal gang rape. It’s no wonder that the viewer is kept on the edge of his seat, out of a sickly combination of terror, curiosity, and even admiration for the daring children.
Kevin and Fito’s journeys diverge, only to meet again back where they started—their destitute village in Honduras. (Fito never made it to the U.S., but Kevin was picked up at the border.) Both boys seem defeated by the journey. As director Rebecca Cammisa told NPR in an interview:
Well, Fito, while on the road, was tired, hungry and ran out of money and just wanted to go back to Honduras. So he was deported back. But Kevin continued on by himself. And once he made it, you know, he speaks very eloquently about him witnessing a gang rape while he's in a freight car, watching this happen. And he says, “Yeah, I don't know what made me decide to not do this, but something told me I'm a child and I'm not going to risk my life out there by myself, you know? I would rather go back to my own country and suffer."
Kevin spends two months in a juvenile center for migrant kids in Houston, TX before he is sent back to Honduras. At the end of the film, we are informed that nine months after their failed attempt, the boys make another attempt at the United States. Fito was caught again and sent back, and Kevin ended up in an orphanage in the state of Washington; his mother hopes that he gets adopted by a family in the U.S.
Which Way Home also spotlights parents affected by their children leaving alone for the United States. One story relates Eloy’s (age 13) and Rosario’s (16) departure. A month after leaving, the U.S. Border Patrol found Eloy’s body in the desert. Another body that had Rosario’s belongings and birth certificate is also discovered, but because the body is so decomposed it takes a DNA sample to confirm that it is indeed that of the young Rosario. A government official tells them coldly: “I would like to express to you both that given the state in which [Rosario] was found, it is not possible to view [the body].” The images of his coffin being delivered to his mother and father are one of the most heart-wrenching displays in the movie.
Which Way Home highlights many other aspects of the immigration milieu, like the detention centers in Mexico and the United States where adolescents are interviewed to determine citizenship so that they can be deported to their appropriate homes. Also on display is a small Christian mission near a train hub where travelers can rest and get food. The mission is packed with people who disembarked one freight train in need of a rest before catching the next train out. The mission—littered with dirty mattresses which travelers must share—offers a final warning about the dangers of their long journey. Says one missionary to a crowd:
Mexico is the passage of death for you. The freight train can be your best friend … But it can also be your worst enemy. It can kill you. The United States is not the passage of death; the United States is “death itself.” At the border during the day, temperatures go from 120 degrees up to 140 degrees. It is proven that at the border, out of every 100 immigrants, between 10 to 20, or more, die. Maybe many of you here will die. Many of you will never see your families again. Many of you here will never return to your countries. Now brothers, who here really wants to go to the United States? Raise your hand.
Without exception, every man in the crowd raises his hand.
In Which Way Home, we are also privy to an emotionally crushing interview with a little boy who had been traveling with “coyotes,” or smugglers, that his family had hired to get him into the United States, only to be abandoned by his handler once the going got rough. While many of the children’s parents know that their child has gone, and in fact encourage them to leave, just as many parents are in the dark and wait anxiously for any sort of news from their little loved ones.
Which Way Home forces us to not only confront the frustrations of the children willing to traverse wild and dangerous lands in search of greener pastures, but to seriously consider the destitute circumstances that underpin their desires for a better life in the first place. We want to reach out to them, to tell them that life will not become magical just by reaching the United States, and that perhaps the dangerous journey is not worth the risks. We understand, though, why they want to escape their poverty and try to attain a better life.
Or maybe we don’t quite understand their circumstances after all, and that is why we cannot fathom children making such incredible and heroic efforts. Immigrants are people too, the film screams, but too many of them are much younger and more vulnerable than we may think.
June 29, 2011
frontispiece: scene from Which Way Home
1. Compared to 8,220 illegal alien apprehensions along coastal borders, and 7,431 apprehensions along the U.S.’s northern border. See “U.S. Border Patrol Fiscal Year Apprehension Statistics” (June 7, 2011).
2. USA Today. “Migrant Border Deaths Rose to 417 in 2009” (May 6, 2010).