Of the nearly 6,000 migrant remains recovered by Border Patrol along the Southwestern frontier between 1998 and 2012, more than a third have passed through here. Between 2002 and 2012, the morgue took on an average of 176 recovered remains yearly. Last year brought 169 more. By comparison, the office examined the bodies of only five likely migrants in 1992, several years before the Border Patrol started building up enforcement capacity in popular urban crossing sites like El Paso and San Diego.
It was the scale of the tragedy passing through Hess’ morgue, and the often ignored story that tragedy tells about undocumented migration to the United States, that caught the eyes of independent filmmakers Ivan O’Mahoney and Nial Fulton.
“What a bizarre situation,” O’Mahoney said. “You’ve got one of the smaller cities in the U.S. and one of the busiest morgues, because of the situation with migrants dying crossing the border.”
As they were planning their new film project half a world away in Australia, the medical examiner’s office struck them as a poignant place to open their constructed documentary “Borderland.
“Why do you start at the morgue?” Fulton said and then answered his own question: “Because that’s the end. That’s the endgame, the endpoint for so many of these people. If anything is going to shake people out of their malaise, it’s a freezer or a cooler full of migrants.”
For O’Mahoney, the morgue scene would serve a dual purpose: It would paint a stark picture of the life-and-death stakes of immigration and its enforcement, and it would also bring out the views of the show’s six participants, all of whom have strong and divergent opinions about immigration and none of whom had ever been to the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I was also looking for a way into the story that would be, for lack of a better word, confrontational from the beginning, a way that would immediately set the fault lines among the group of participants, but would also immediately focus the attention,” O’Mahoney said. “I didn’t want to go in softly, softly … These are people who are dying. Now let’s go look at why that is happening and what it says about our policies.”
At the start of the first of four episodes, the six participants are taken to the morgue but are not told where they are going. Accurately predicting reactions to something as extreme as being surrounded by more than 100 human corpses is a challenging task. Staring at the bodies, Lis-Marie Alvarado, an immigrant rights activist from Florida and one of the participants, said: “These are my people right here. This could be my family right now. This is what the law does. The law that you have here, that kills people like you see right here. I’m angry. Because all of these people here shouldn’t be dead.”
Moments later Randy Stufflebeam, a retired Marine from Illinois, responded: “This isn’t about what our country is doing unless you’re showing that this country is so good that people have been willing to die to try to make it here.”
“People didn’t come here because we think this country is pretty,” Alvarado answered incredulously. “Are you kidding me? That’s the least respect to all the bodies here to even say that. People come here out of necessity.”