The Border is Everywhere: A Review of the Texas Tribune’s 'Beyond the Wall' Documentary and Panel Discussion

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By Kevin Lentz

On the night of March 28th, a panel of five speakers and roughly eighty viewers gathered at the KLRU studio on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin to watch and discuss the short documentary made by the Texas Tribune titled Beyond the Wall.

The film seeks, in the words of its creators, to step back from the heightened tensions around the US-Mexico border spurred on by the recent election of Trump and explore why “people and dope” keep pouring across the border. Ultimately, the creators of the film want to “get to the bottom of what we in Texas and in the US are doing and what we are not doing to stop [the flow of people and dope across the border].”

Over the course of a year, a team of journalists and videographers led up by Jay Root and Todd Wiseman traveled south, beyond the border wall, into Mexico and Central America conducting interviews, taking footage, and following the migrant flow back up to South Texas.

The Documentary

As far as the documentary itself goes, Beyond the Wall is a short, engaging, and informative snapshot of the complex knot of problems simplistically referred to in political talk as “the Border issue.” It is well worth the watch, least of all because it will take up so little of your time, clocking in at roughly twenty-seven minutes.

The team behind it went well beyond the usual un-caring mediocrity that mainstream media outlets give the issue—in which “Mexico” is usually tagged with “Violent,” and “Wall” or “Security” is tagged with “National Interest,” as if an international geopolitical dilemma involving millions of people and just as many motives could be reduced to a binary distinction between “Good” and “Bad.”

Starting in El Salvador, the murder capital of the world, we begin with the systematically overlooked fact that most immigrants coming into the US from Mexico these days are less and less of Mexican origin and are instead more likely to come from countries like Guatemala or El Salvador. Facing an absolutely warlike level of violence fueled by the international drug trade in their home countries, most immigrants face the choice of either staying and dying where they were born or fleeing north to try and secure a future.

From there, hopeful immigrants make a series of desperate leaps of faith—some hundreds of miles by foot—to various Casas de Immigrantes, or immigrant shelters, in places like Tapachula and Arriaga, Mexico until they make it, or not, to a northern city to prepare for another leap of faith into the southern US. Along the way, being made incredibly vulnerable thanks in part to the Mexican Government’s recent “Southern Border Program” which licenses the national police force to hassle Central American refugees, many are forced to sneak through dangerous passages to avoid checkpoints, and are subsequently robbed of everything they own by thieves. Families face separation, starvation, and an odyssey that promises next to nothing.

Moving from the desperate, even apocalyptic, situation in Mexico the filmmakers follow the migrant stream to the US border. Here, in places like Roma, Texas, families that can’t afford a coyote (a skilled smuggler) simply try their best to wade across the Rio Grande. After this they either do their best to blend in and begin their lives as undocumented immigrants, or, more likely, are immediately apprehended by our behemoth Border Patrol apparatus.

Oftentimes, as the film displays with great impact, exhausted immigrant families simply wander up the paths used by the vehicles of the Border Patrol and flag down an officer to begin their legal processing—either amnesty or deportation.

Having followed the desperate path of the Central American immigrant, the filmmakers then pause to give consideration to the US generated factors that may be contributing to the international migrant stream.

The math here is pretty simple. On the “people” side there are jobs in the US, and hence income, and cartel members don’t wander the streets with Uzis and kill bystanders in turf wars. On the “dope” side, the US consumes 80% of the world’s opioids.

So, you have immigrants coming to sell their labor power in exchange for a wage and the promise of a normal life, and you have cartel members coming to sell a continent’s worth of drugs and get exorbitantly wealthy—or at least their bosses will.

State-financed boats, choppers, trucks, foot patrols, and ATVs swarm around the Rio Grande playing cat and mouse with crossing immigrants in an attempt to prop up a spectacle of “secureness,” while heartland power brokers suck in and encourage the migration of as much cheap labor as they possibly can.

It is at this point that the documentary shifts into its final stretch and wades into the murky waters of Texas and national politics, and how “we” are or are not “handling the issue.”

Basically, on the one hand, the part-time aristocrats that run the Texas government blow half a billion dollars a year on a poor performing state-financed Texas Border Patrol to complement the already bloated Federal Border Patrol.  On the other hand, the full-time aristocrats who build buildings and roads, and hustle food and oil, hire immigrants en masse under the table for poverty wages because they can and because it’s what keeps them rich.

State-financed boats, choppers, trucks, foot patrols, and ATVs swarm around the Rio Grande playing cat and mouse with crossing immigrants in an attempt to prop up a spectacle of “secureness,” while heartland power brokers suck in and encourage the migration of as much cheap labor as they possibly can.

In other words, the “issue” is not “being handled.” On the contrary, with a few well-meaning non-profit industry exceptions like the Equal Justice Center, the situation is merely being perpetuated. The State looks the other way, and in private industry “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the law of the land. Bosses want cheap labor, politicians want funding, and immigrants want a chance to make living, no matter how meager.

In the waning moments of the film we are confronted with the prospects for future justice. Or, in other words, we are confronted with the likelihood of continued suffering, exploitation, inaction, and racist fear mongering, as the federal government is now run by a man who whipped up the enthusiasm of white nationalists by casting the entirety of Mexican immigrants (more or less code for all Latinx immigrants) as rapists and criminals.

The film ends with a brutal interview of an undocumented businessman who asks simply that illegal immigrants be given a chance, “to be somebody—to be a person.”

The Discussion

Such is the content of the documentary, a well executed—if somewhat constrained—concept. Moreover, it is precisely the constrained nature of the documentary, hidden in the seamless narrative of the final product, and of the general constraints of the framework it was produced under, which came to the fore in the panel-led Q&A session that followed the screening.

In the first place, the audience was for the most part middle-aged-and-up, white, and if clothing and social customs are any indicator, well-off—a cheery and eager group, casually chatting in the ritzy atmosphere of the KLRU live studio on UT’s campus.

Odd perhaps, given that the border and the people that cross it are overwhelmingly brown, as were the bodies and personalities that were featured in the film. On the other hand, perhaps it is not so odd given that the people from the borderlands and the people that cross the border don’t need to watch an informative documentary about the “issue” since it is a practical reality that they must inhabit and deal with every day. Why would they watch what they already live?

In either case, however, despite the diversity present amongst the younger crowd that attended, the generally homogenous nature of the viewers raised the question of who the intended audience for the documentary was, and why it was created in the first place.

To be completely honest, the discussion quickly took on a jarringly run-of-the-mill atmosphere, as questions of policy concerning the life and death of fellow humans fleeing all-consuming violence were interrupted with periodic bouts of laughter and all-in-good-humor nods and shrugs.

The panelists were, in no particular order: Julián Aguilar, himself a reporter for the Tribune, Bill Hammond, a former Texas Representative and CEO of the Texas Association of Business, A.J. Louderback, a Sheriff from Jackson county and legislative director for Texas Sheriffs, and Norma Torres Mendoza, a DACA recipient and Harvard Graduate. In other words, a politician, a journalist, an advocate, and a sheriff. These of course, and Jay Root, the journalist and filmmaker who put the film together and led the panel.

The questions asked by Root ranged from minute policy and of-the-moment Texas political scene questions—how would the Sheriff respond to a recent Democratic lawmaker’s stand against employer use of illegal labor—to the semi-utopian ‘if you had a magic wand’ type question. Recurring topics and angles ranged from “Comprehensive (federal) Immigration Reform” pushed notably by Bill Hammond, “Secure Borders” pushed by the Sheriff, “Grand Bargain,” and “Future Flow,” introduced by Jay Root, and the trending issue of “Sanctuary Cities.”

To be completely honest, the discussion quickly took on a jarringly run-of-the-mill atmosphere, as questions of policy concerning the life and death of fellow humans fleeing all-consuming violence were interrupted with periodic bouts of laughter and all-in-good-humor nods and shrugs.

Take this exchange: in the audience Q&A after a series of three questions asked by different middle-aged white men for the Sheriff concerning the minutia of “Sanctuary City” policy, a fourth older white man asked, in a mannered and joking style, “How are you going to build a wall in San [unclear] Canyon?”  The audience broke into laughter as the MC recognized the man’s voice and asked chuckling, “Is that Dave? Dave Richards?” One can only guess whether or not this was Dave Richards, ex-husband of the former Texas Governor Ann Richards.

Another interesting moment came from an interaction with Bill Hammond. The sound-bite worthy former Representative, not shy in front of a crowd, was very forthcoming about the function of cheap illegal immigrant labor at multiple points, and in the final moments of the discussion interjected: “The Texas economy would be in dire straights tomorrow if suddenly the undocumented workers were to be removed from the economy. That does not work, that is bad for everybody.” Though this is an honest embrace of the often downplayed value of the illegal laborer, it is also an outright acknowledgment that our everyday economy relies completely on the right-less and criminalized status of Latinx immigrants, and that we need them perpetually in this position if we are to continue to enjoy a “healthy economy.”

Whether or not the audience appreciated the implication of Hammond’s comment is unclear, but the comment was met with hearty applause.

There were, of course, many more moments worthy of thought and consideration, but they were all more or less how you would expect a caricatured version of each panelists to present themselves. The Sheriff talked about being a “Nation of Laws” and warning against “Chaos,” the former politician and businessman advocated for “Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” and legal status that could meet the needs of employers, the Journalist delved into the behind the scenes complexities of whatever issue was at hand, and the DACA recipient and current director of Financial Literacy at a non-profit charter school corporation advocated for sympathy, and education financing.

At the end, most wandered sheepishly out of the live-audience studio and back onto campus, while some stayed behind to grip and grin with buddies they knew in the production team.

To return to the original question, who is the intended audience of the documentary and why was it created, the answer is writ large on the Texas Tribune’s website. Next to the livestream there is a “donate here” link emblazoned with the header: “Be a Citizen, not a spectator.” The framework motivating the documentary, and to a certain extent the donating members of the Tribune, is that of the idea of the “professional citizen,” or the “activist citizen” who somehow has the free time to delve into the subtleties and policies on offer to deal with whatever current “issue” is at hand before making an “informed decision” on some vote.

It is, in other words, the framework of the spontaneous elitism that undergirds American establishment politics. Here, the knowledge of “experts” is counterposed to the dull unknowingness of the masses, and the only valid opinions are those that have been researched and are couched in the symbols and buzzwords of the dominant political mode of expression—policy talk, political neutrality for the sake of objectivity, and ‘but-of-course’ cynicism.

The documentary is for precisely the kind of people that showed up to view it: relatively comfortable and mostly white and light members of the non-profit and professional community. In many senses it will stand merely as another informative entry in the vast and growing database of the Tribune, another small step in their mission to be the neutral arbiter of all the subtle facts of Texan politics.

This is, of course, fine, and doesn’t diminish the achievements of the film, which reveals and spotlights dynamics that are for the most part ignored or brushed under the rug by the national mainstream media.

However, the information remains open for utilization by a political project and movement that understands that neutrality and expert-based dialog in the face of fatal race trafficking and deliberate socio-economic domination is neither politically productive nor appropriate.

Watch the documentary

And the panel discussion here.