Telling the Stories of Immigrant Children Telling the Stories of Immigrant Children
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Telling the Stories of Immigrant Children

by Siobhan O'Connor

August 21, 2009

Rebecca Cammisa's Which Way Home follows children who desperately try to cross the U.S.-Mexican border.

In the last several years, immigration policy has been central to most national conversations. What's often left out of the story, however, are the almost 100,000 children detained each year trying to get into the United States on their own. It's a startling number that raises many questions. How many make it in without getting caught? What happens to them when they get here? And what of those who don't even make it as far as the border? In her revealing new documentary, Which Way Home, Rebecca Cammisa tackles some of these questions.With unprecedented access, Cammisa-who gained notoriety after her 2002 film Sister Helen-followed a handful of unaccompanied children from Latin America to the United States. Some make it; others don't; and each of their stories is as compelling as it is tough to watch. With the documentary scheduled to air next week on HBO, GOOD caught up with Cammisa to find out a little more about the problem-and its possible solutions.GOOD: This is a wildly under-reported story. How did you come upon the subject?REBECCA CAMMISA: A friend called me up and told me to read an article. He said it's about child migrants who are traveling by themselves and I said "What?" I had no idea this was occurring. I'm sort of a news junkie and I realized that if I don't know about it, there must be a lot of people who don't know about it. That was sort of the impetus to make the film.
G: How did you find the children you follow?RC: Primarily, we'd find them in detention centers, or we would meet them on the road, at bus stations, on the train tracks where migrants congregate to wait for freight trains going north. We also met children in shelters, on the street doing tricks at intersections to try to raise funds.G: I was doing some background reading and there just isn't much out there about this.  What are the numbers like?RC: The statistic we got from the U.S. border patrol is that every year they detain close to 100,000 children. But of course statistics are really problematic. Because this is illegal and a shadow world going on, there's no one sitting there as people swing by going north, and the only way to count is to count how many people come through shelters, or how many people are caught and detained by immigration.G: What do you think is the pull for someone so young, traveling on their own?RC: The United States is the fulfillment of dreams. You can get a job. Families get separated because parents leave seeking work, so one aspect of this is the problem of family reunification. Parents are trying to bring their kids to meet them the only way they know how, and children are trying to get to them the only way they know how.G: And these kids expecting to find work when they get here, too?RC: Some are, yeah. You know, we told a few of them, "You're not going to be able to go to Times Square and shine shoes. Children aren't allowed to work in the United States-they have to be in school." And they'd say "No, I'll get a job." So, you know, children are coming to find employment, to run away from problems at home, to help their families, to find their parents. Others live on the streets and they think if they come to the United States they can find a family to adopt them and love them.G: I imagine it doesn't work out that way very often.RC: I'm not a statistician or an academic, so I haven't studied what happens, but I know a few who have made it here and gotten jobs. Others die en route, others are scooped up into the prostitution networks, others are forced to be drug mules. There are all kinds of nasty things that can happen to a child.G: What do you think can be done to help these kids?RC: Listen, migration has been the human story since the dawn of time, so there will never be one thing that will solve everyone's problems. Still, a lot of people migrate because there are no choices left; there is nothing left for them in their country. Maybe their homes were wiped out by a hurricane or their crops are no longer of value because they've been undercut by the U.S. market. But if you go to the source, people wouldn't migrate in mass droves if they could succeed and be sustained in their home country. If people are supported and succeeding, they'll stay.
G: What kind of legislation do you think could help?RC: If we can just say, Yes, we need workers, and accept it, then you can create a system where people can come legally, and seasonally, and work. That could help a lot, because one big reason why these children are trying to get here, or their families are trying to smuggle them in, is in an attempt at reunification. So, if people are allowed seasonal work, have the papers or a card to do so, they can come and go, and there's a circularity achieved. But with a lock-down at the border and no way for people to come and work and be legal just creates this situation where parents never return home and children don't see their parents for years on end. It's coming to terms with what do we need for our economy, to make it functional, and that may alleviate what people have to go through to get here.G: How would that impact the people in your film?RC: Seeing people in these situations, it's completely dehumanizing. I'd like to see laws that support people being treated with respect and not being dehumanized or being placed into dangerous situations, or being forced to make the only decision they can make, and that decision putting them in danger. I think if [a subject in the film] Kevin's mother could survive and afford her own home, she wouldn't talk to her son about helping her out. And Olga and Freddy might not have to go try to find their parents in Minnesota if there was some sort of seasonal, functional system where they cold come and go. They would have seen their parents by now.G: At the end of the film, we don't know what happens to Olga and Freddy. Do you know now where they are?RC: No. It's tragic and it's very upsetting to me that children are put in these situations, but it's harder on them, quite frankly. They're the ones who live it.--Which Way Home airs on August 24 on HBO.  For more information, click here. To support the people and shelters in this film, click here.Disclosure: Bristol Baughn, a GOOD co-founder, was an executive producer on this film.Photograph and stills courtesy of HBO Documentary Films. Header photo: Rebecca Cammisa and Kevin, one of the film's principle children.
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Telling the Stories of Immigrant Children