Directed by Joseph Mathew

Matt Cale had a grill..

Illegal immigration is one of the few hot-button issues about which I can fully agree with both sides of the coin. Surely the problem is more complicated than each faction is letting on, but whenever I am presented with a fair-minded assessment, I retreat from rigid ideology and embrace the human costs above all else. And as Joseph Mathew’s eminently reasonable documentary Crossing Arizona proves, no one belief can ever win out, as drastic measures for any camp will prove disastrous for both Mexico and the United States. Mathew’s film is a wonderful antidote to hysteria and shameless posturing and although it does side with compassion and the immigrant’s cause, it does so without trite sentimentalism or simplistic reasoning. In fact, the bias is so low-key and hidden that it barely comes forward at all. Sure, Chris Simcox of Tombstone, Arizona and his Minuteman Project appear self-righteous and often foolish (his border patrols strike me as childish games of Cowboys and Indians), but when he reveals that he’s opposed to the war in Iraq, it strikes us that a single issue rarely defines a man’s life. We might assume Mr. Simcox is a simpleminded racist (and he may be), but he’s hardly camping out on the right side of the aisle.

Such complexity is also brought to bear in the case of a man who sets up water stations in the bleak Arizona desert. His commitment to saving lives is admirable, but at the same time, he refuses to help anyone beyond his “gifts”. An illegal alien comes upon his truck, receives a jug of water and a few bags of food, but is told that he will not be driven to safety. Surely he could take the Mexican a few miles up the road to ease his burden, but he’s not about to break the law. His gesture — and limits as to how far he will go — proves conclusively that water stations themselves, often criticized by the anti-immigrant crowd as “encouragements to invade”, are nothing more than humanitarian efforts to keep people alive. Since these people will be coming regardless of the current law, it is only those who oppose water (and some do, as the slashed jugs demonstrate) who reveal their true feelings on matters of life and death. Members of Humane Borders and other human rights groups also descend on the area, not only to ensure that the soaring death rates subside, but that the Minuteman patrols do not descend into vigilante justice.

The film also deals with Arizona’s Proposition 200, a 2004 ballot initiative making it legal to demand proof of citizenship in order to vote or receive health care services. At a moment’s notice, a person may be asked to produce a driver’s license or even a birth certificate, an action that strikes many as too reminiscent of Nazi measures against the Jews, but for others, is simply sane policy in the face of an immigrant “flood”. I have little doubt that illegal immigrants have, and will continue to vote, but I suspect that those who want to crack down on fraud in this area care little for the black box issues that tend to favor Republicans in other states. Certainly, no one should ever be harassed by law enforcement to “prove” their status, but in terms of voting, I fully agree that some sort of official identification should be required. I’m not comfortable with the bearded “enforcers” who stand outside polling places as a way to intimidate the largely Hispanic constituents (the Voting Rights Act was passed for the very reason of keeping such people away), but surely we’ve moved beyond the days where a man could wander into the booth, sign only an “X”, and be assured that his vote counted. I simply don’t trust the fuckers who have rigged this election game year after year; I want rigorous standards for everyone, Republican and Democrat alike. If we oppose such measures merely because they might have dubious supporters, we ensure the continuation of a failed system.

Again, though, the beauty of this informative, judicious film is that the moment we might sympathize fully with the pro-immigration forces, a story is presented that provides compelling evidence for the opposite position. Take the case of the ranchers near the border: they own vast spreads of land, cattle, and crops, and are entitled to run their operations in their own way, so long as they abide by the law. Repeatedly, these ranchers have been forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars replacing cut fence, slaughtered livestock, and trashed property. One woman in particular spends hours every day cleaning up waste from her land as a result of immigrants trekking to and fro. Even her prized angus, valued at thousands of dollars, died just days after ingesting a plastic bag left by an illegal alien. Taking this single issue, we must understand her grief and frustration, even more so because she is far from hostile or racist; she simply wants people — any people — off her land. Isn’t she entitled to this simple request? And what of the border towns who witness an uptick in crime, property damage, and littering with the influx of illegals? Of course, property rights yield to human life, but as American citizens who pay taxes, should they not expect a workable policy that affords them some level of protection?

Crossing Arizona concerns all of these people and views: the bigots, the xenophobes, the demagogues, the civil libertarians, the immigrants, and those who spend their lives tracking them down. We see how yes, many are simply doing their jobs, even though they’re outmanned and receive little help from a National Guard spread too thin by war. Others don’t have a political bone in their bodies, and seek only to stop the dying. Hundreds die every year in the unforgiving Arizona landscape, and while it would be easy to dismiss their losses as “risks they take breaking the law”, we begin to wonder what we would do if faced with unemployment, hunger, and utter hopelessness. And let’s face it, I sure as hell don’t have the bravery to leave my home and risk my life for a few coins. Whatever one might think about the issue at large, these people are tough, hearty SOBs, and the journey into the United States is only the beginning. Once here, they always have to look over their shoulders, work backbreaking labor, and stay in the shadows as the despised and the damned. As one immigrant laborer states while picking peppers, “Gringos don’t want these jobs….They want to work in an office.” This is undeniably true, and for every person who bitches about the “problem”, there are dozens of immigrants who work tirelessly to ensure that your fruits and vegetables can be had for a song.

Again, my views concerning illegal immigration reflect the complexity of this film, as I believe it should be for anyone who has given the issue a passing thought. As I know corporate America’s power and influence ensure a steady flow of illegal, surplus labor in order to break unions and keep wages low, I sympathize with working stiffs who have seen their political and economic positions deteriorate in recent decades. They are right to fight for the dignity of the American laborer. And yet, the hypocrisy enrages me, as I know that Mexicans are being demonized when in fact the blame lies solely with employers and business leaders who wink at their public’s rage, all while keeping the borders wide open. Rather than punish the individuals for trying to survive, perhaps we should arrest managers and business owners whose only concern is maximizing profits, even at the expense of the American workers they claim to worship. And while I completely support people trying to survive in a hostile world against all the odds, I am distressed by the Mexican government’s policy of exporting their poor to our country, who in turn send money back to their families, thereby providing a double benefit for the powers that be. Mexico would sooner commit mass suicide that curtail immigration to the North, so it seems reasonable to express anger from our side of the Rio Grande.

And sure, I understand that Mexicans are in this country to work and nothing more, but part of me simply does not understand why these people feel obligated to take, yet not feel the same pull regarding assimilation and learning the native language. Yes, “we” get the benefit of their hard work and influx of cash into the economy, but it still seems so wildly one-sided, as if the United States were nothing more than an ATM for their continued exploitation. Believe me, I’m even more disgusted with so-called “patriots” who evade responsibility and hold off-shore tax shelters for their corporations, but rich and poor alike deserve the same level of harsh rebuke whenever the equation teeters to one side. Wherever the answer lies, it is not with the polar opposites: those who seek un-patrolled, open borders and total amnesty, against those whose blind hatred of the Other seeks to punish man, woman, and child alike, with the added hope that they drop like flies in the Arizona heat. Any sovereign nation worth its salt has a duty to protect its borders against intruders, but the obligation is just as strong to level with its citizens about the costs that would follow such a policy. A clip from Bill O’Reilly’s program is illustrative of where this issue now stands, much to our peril. When asked by commentator Juan Williams if indeed O’Reilly was proposing a border system on par with North Korea’s police state, he said, without apology, “Yes, I am”. It wouldn’t take long to reach that disastrous end, and if we do, we’ll have proved yet again that the greatest enemy a nation faces is always, always from within.