Remains. The verb means to stay, to continue, to be left. The noun means the same, usually associated with what’s left after a death—writings, traces, and bodies. Each of these ideas has to do with what might be collected, measured or otherwise documented. When human remains are not documented—when they are unidentified or unfound—those family members and friends who are left behind in another way bear immeasurable burdens.
Marco Williams’ remarkable film The Undocumented, airing 29 April on Independent Lens, considers these many burdens in a series of contexts, focusing on men, women, and children who cross the border from Sonora, Mexico into the United States by way of Arizona. More than 2500 of them have tried and failed over the past 15 years, at least by the rough and necessarily inaccurate count conjured by border patrol and Mexican consul officials. The losses are onerous for relatives, of course, and each instance brings with it a particular story of sacrifice and pain.
Just so, the story of Francisco Hernandez provides an aptly difficult and elusive focus, in the sense that he has disappeared following his decision to cross the desert. With a son in the hospital suffering from kidney failure, Francisco was determined to find work and so be able to fund Gustavo’s treatment, even as his family worried for him. Another son, Marcos, now lives in Chicago, and the film follows his efforts to learn what’s become of his father. Marcos feeds pigeons on the sidewalk outside the bakery where he works, remembering the difficulty of his own border crossing, a journey he’s made to find his father. He keeps on his phone a recording of the last conversation he had with his father’s coyote, who told him approximately where he abandoned Francisco after he became too sick to go on. “He didn’t care about my father’s life or anyone else’s,” laments Marcos, “All he cared about was money,” more specifically, the $2500 he charged Francisco before they left Mexico.
“People are dying, and that should be enough to change things,” says Kat Rodriguez of the Coalición de Derechos Humanos (the Human Rights Coalition), a grassroots organization that counters the militarization of the US southern border region. Kat’s office receives calls every day from relatives of lost individuals, seeking help in locating them. Though this isn’t Derechos Humanos’ charge, staffers do their best to put people in touch with offices that can help, including local police and federal agents, the Mexican consulate (the Tucson office headed by Jeronimo Garcia), and the medical examines who are presented each day with unidentified remains.
The film traces the various steps in making identifications, beginning with Border Patrol Search and Rescue (BORSTAR) agents: here the camera follows along as men and women in uniforms travel over the desert, by vehicle and on foot. Sometimes they run to catch kids and young men in sneakers and t-shirts, people wholly unequipped to make the trek they hope to make, without enough water to survive in the 108 daytime degree temperatures, with little understanding of the environment or distances they face (coyotes frequently lie to clients, suggesting they have some 12 or 13 hours to walk, where the actual distance is closer to two and three days).
When the agents find survivors, they provide them with water and take them to shelters. They also find remains, bodies baked by the sun, skeletons, and bones scattered across the desert floor. These remains are transported to the Pima County medical examiner’s office, where Bruce Parks takes photos and performs autopsies, looking for clues to identities in clothing, sometimes sewed into underwear along with money that has proved useless. Parks notes the rising numbers of cases his office must process each year, and explains, “We believe it’s important to teat people equally and just as we would a US citizen. We can’t do anything for the dead. All we can do is help the living.”
The camera observes from a long, low, handheld distance as he and his colleagues zip and unzip body bags, as they roll gurneys from freezers to examining rooms and back again, as they measure bodies and body parts with tapes, cut into desiccated carcasses, examine jeans and mementos and boots. They check teeth in search of identifying markers, though dental records are hardly reliable in cases of impoverished farmers who’ve never been to a dentist before they leave for the US. They imagine an American Dream on the other side. Garcia clicks on photos stored on his desktop at the consulate, noting, “They lose it all in the desert.”
And they are lost, as well. The living who remain do their best to go on; they conduct funerals when they are fortunate enough to have remains delivered to them. They do their best to remember when they do not. The film doesn’t make an aggressive case against the current state of US border politics, but it doesn’t have to. “Each case makes us think,” says Garcia, “We understand their anguish.” Parks adds, “The United States is asking for this labor force,” as he stands over a table full of dry bones he tries to reassemble. As we benefit from such workers’ efforts, he goes on, “We have to ask ourselves do we have some responsibility in these deaths.”