One day Linda Vickers returned home to her ranch in Falfurrias, Texas, just north of the Mexican border, to find two of her dogs playing with what appeared to be a ball. Looking more closely, Linda discovered that it was a human skull. Her husband, Michael, went in search of the rest of the body, eventually finding a woman’s skeleton nearby, its flesh stripped by wild animals. The woman had broken her leg and apparently been left to die on an isolated part of the ranch by “coyotes,” the guides who lead illegal immigrants into the United States from Mexico by navigating through the properties of people like Linda and Michael Vickers.
Photos of the skull and skeleton are among the disturbing images that leap off the screen in the powerful documentary Border: The Divide Between the American Dream and the American Nightmare, which chronicles the toll that illegal trafficking in human beings, drugs, and other contraband across our southern border is taking on ordinary Americans and on the would-be immigrants who risk attacks, abandonment, and death at the coyotes’ hands. On the land around his farm, Michael tells the camera, some 40 bodies have been discovered in just six months—stark evidence of how the American dream can indeed become the American nightmare.
Border is successful, in part, because of how its power creeps up on you. The film’s disarmingly goofy creator, Chris Burgard, introduces himself at the outset as something of a dilettante—a ballet dancer turned rodeo rider turned California rancher—who, observing the changes that illegal immigration has wrought in border communities, decides to find out what’s happening and to make a movie about it. Burgard begins by doing a few comic turns for the camera. When his wife tells him that she’s worried this could be a dangerous endeavor, he introduces the head of his security team—his dog. After he tells us that he’ll need an inconspicuous set of wheels to transport him and his crew while making the film, up pulls a garish, comically painted RV. Setting out on his journey, Burgard suddenly stops and returns home—the would-be documentarian has, in pursuit of another laugh, forgotten his camera.
The movie proceeds in this vein as Burgard begins his quest not on the border, but in Washington, D.C., where he chronicles his mostly failed attempts to see key members of Congress like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. He interviews a shadowy figure—a Washington insider, we’re told—who assures him that the political game in the nation’s capital is rigged by both parties against ordinary citizens. This is pretty standard fare, and Burgard doesn’t seem to take it too seriously.
Once he reaches the border, however, his movie turns serious and gripping. With the controversial Minutemen citizens’ group that patrols parts of our Mexican border, Burgard goes on nighttime surveillance missions from Texas to New Mexico to Arizona. He accompanies border agents as they risk attacks from the coyotes while policing illegal crossing points, and he ventures on his own into some of the most isolated and dangerous parts of our border territory to film caravans of drug smugglers marching their illegal cargo into the country.
Those who consider the debate about illegal immigration and border security an abstract discussion of economics or culture will be jarred when Burgard shows them some 35 bodies discovered in and around the popular crossing areas—many of the dead now little more than bones draped with clothes, their faces frozen in horrifying death masks. Some of the bodies are of young women, believed to be sex slaves smuggled into the country as prostitutes for immigrant workers here. Others came willingly with the coyotes, only to be left to die when they faltered in the desert heat or were injured and couldn’t go on. The coyotes’ shocking disregard for human life is evident in their name for themselves: polleros, or chicken farmers, while they refer to the illegals they lead across the border as pollos, or chickens.
Using his camera to good effect and going places it probably wasn’t safe to go, Burgard illustrates just how thinly policed our border has been. Walking the ranches of those unlucky enough to own land near our southern border, Burgard and his guides come upon enormous piles of garbage in spots where large groups of illegals and their guides camp as they wend their way across the border. Accompanying the border patrol on its nightly rounds, Burgard films the officers intercepting a family of illegals, only to learn later from the agents that the family was a decoy; while the border patrol was processing them, other groups made their way through, disappearing into the U.S. under cover of darkness.
In perhaps the movie’s most harrowing sequence, the documentary crew journeys on its own into an isolated valley, known as Cocaine Alley because drug smugglers use it regularly, to film with infrared lenses “mule trains” of illegals enlisted to bring drugs into the country, accompanied by guides toting automatic weapons. In the course of a single evening, Burgard films two groups—one of 29 walkers, the other of 19—making their way through this remote landscape, which is patrolled by a sole border agent armed with a handgun.
Border doesn’t always sizzle in this way. For some reason, Burgard feels obligated to rehearse the great debates surrounding immigration, tapping ACLU attorneys and immigration advocacy groups on the one hand, and hospital executives and Minutemen spokesmen on the other, to discuss such issues as the cost of illegal immigration to our health-care system. Documentary film is not the best format for such explorations, and the experts Burgard calls on are far from the most compelling on this issue. The film is at its best when it shows, through stark images and probing shots, that illegal immigration in America is a reality that few of us understand or see up close. Burgard’s achievement lies in bringing this reality home.