Pterodáctilo (PT): In your documentary, you challenge audiences to imagine creative and effective solutions to the problem of immigration to the United States; do you have any specific solutions?
Roy Germano (RG): I believe developing more creative and effective approaches to undocumented immigration from Mexico demands that we treat this as a bilateral issue and do more to understand the motivations of people who are doing the migrating.
People I spoke with in rural Mexico—peasant farmers, return migrants, community leaders, mothers and fathers, local politicians—frequently suggested that the U.S. and Mexican governments cooperate to develop new guestworker programs to regulate migration flows that, fueled by economic necessity and perpetuated by decades of momentum, cannot be stopped with walls or border guards. A little known fact is that many Mexicans who are working in the US illegally would prefer to be here only briefly. They often stay for many years, however, in an effort to capitalize on all they risked and paid (e.g., thousands of dollars in fees to human smugglers) to enter the U.S. in the first place. So, in addition to generating new tax revenue and satisfying demand for low-skilled labor in the U.S., guestworker programs would allow the many Mexicans who prefer to work here temporarily the chance to save some money, return to their families in Mexico, and possibly come back again in the future.
People I spoke with also pointed out that pressure on the U.S.-Mexican border will only subside once more young Mexicans are convinced that they can be successful without ever leaving home. To do this convincing, the U.S. and Mexican governments should cooperate to develop and expand programs that help would-be emigrants start small businesses in their hometowns, increase yields on their farms, and find markets for their products.
Guestworker programs and investment in Mexico need not be mutually exclusive. The most effective guestworker program—one that reduces immigration in the long run—would give return migrants incentives to invest in their communities upon returning to Mexico. The U.S. and Mexico could provide such incentives by establishing a binational development fund that matches some of the money guestworkers earn in the U.S. and dedicate to starting or expanding small businesses in Mexico. There is already a model for this idea. Mexico’s “Three for One Program for Migrants,” for example, matches every dollar sent home by Mexicans in the U.S. with three dollars from the government to fund community projects in poor towns. The problem with “Three for One,” however, like many social programs in Mexico, is that it is underfunded and the people who could benefit from it most often do not even know that it exists.
Because lack of information is such a critical problem, I am in the process of starting a nonprofit organization that will work to inform the residents of impoverished Mexican communities about the government programs that they are entitled to and work with them to apply for and secure such funding. More information about this effort can be found at http://www.TheOtherSideOfImmigration.com.
PT: How did the idea of surveying people from towns in Michoacán come about? Why not other towns, especially the ones in central México, who have not only suffered economically but socially as the men leave behind towns populated by women?
RG: I made The Other Side of Immigration while directing a survey of 700 Mexican households for my Ph.D. in Government at the University of Texas at Austin. My dissertation examines relationships between emigration and politics in Mexico, and I decided to do fieldwork in Michoacán because it was the only state holding a major election at the time of my study. The survey (and shooting for this film) was conducted in ten communities in a region of the state known for having “very high” rates of outmigration. This part of Michoacán is at the center of Mexico’s key labor-exporting region. Like many rural Mexican communities, migration flows in the areas where I was working tend to be dominated by men (although more and more women and children are emigrating these days because stricter border enforcement makes it more difficult for men to work in the U.S. and later return to their families after a year or two). Although circumstances vary by town, I visited many places dominated by senior citizens, women, and children. As many people I interviewed pointed out, the absence of one or more parents puts a great deal of stress on the children and family members who remain behind.
PT: What do you consider in the eyes of the people you interview has contributed to the image of the United States as a land of opportunity? Why do you believe that the reality of working two jobs, 10-14 hr days, the dangers involved in migrating and the living conditions don’t reach others seeking to migrate?
RG: Children in these communities grow up seeing their relatives come home from the U.S. with new trucks and nice clothes, and they hear stories of plentiful jobs that pay $8-$12 an hour (the going rate for labor in these communities is $10-$13 a day). So migrating to the U.S. becomes something of a fantasy—a fantasy that is perpetuated over the generations. But people who migrate quickly learn that working in the U.S. is more difficult than they would have ever imagined. As one man in the film states, “It’s a necessary evil. Going to the U.S. may not be what you hoped it would be, but without it, communities like ours can’t survive.” This is to say that many Mexicans feel a duty to migrate in order to support their families. It only seems natural that they would make the best of their situation by emphasizing the positive aspects when they come home rather than complain about all they’ve sacrificed to support those who stay behind.
PT: In this country there are some who say, that illegal immigrants take jobs from Americans, how do you believe this idea could be challenged? Besides your documentary, do you know of others who are raising activism on the issue?
RG: I think it is well-established that employers in all sectors of our economy simply cannot find enough natives to do the difficult work that undocumented immigrants tend to do. I recently did a screening in upstate New York, for example, where many farmers explained to me that locals (including their own children) refuse to do the backbreaking work involved in picking apples, milking cows, and planting onions, no matter how high wages are. The rare local who takes such a job, they told me, usually lasts no more than a day or two.
But are Americans genuinely worried that undocumented immigrants are stealing jobs from native-born citizens? I think the real issue is that many Americans see a growing Mexican population as a threat to an Anglo-American cultural identity. This is no doubt the motivation behind SB1070, a new law in Arizona that allows policy to detain immigrants who cannot prove legal residency upon request. The jobs argument, however, just like the security argument, sounds more acceptable than arguments based on race or culture. By bringing a human face to the immigration issue and providing “information” about Mexican immigrants’ motivations, I hope The Other Side of Immigration plays some role in alleviating fears like those that culminated in the passage of SB1070.
PT: Do you believe the Obama administration will resolve the immigration conundrum?
RG: Immigration reform means different things to different people. I show my film to all kinds of audiences: some people who attend my screenings believe that locking down the border and deporting undocumented immigrants is the solution; other audiences criticize my emphasis on guestworker programs and argue that everyone should have US citizenship, whether they actually want to be citizens or not! As is the case with most big issues, making progress on immigration will require that Americans avoid extreme positions and search for common ground. Judging by the tone of the recent healthcare debate, however, I fear that the Obama administration and the Congress have their work cut out for them.
One thing I think most Americans (and most Mexicans) can agree on is that it is a problem to have millions of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Solving this problem demands that we use a mix of approaches, including providing some people a path to citizenship, providing others temporary work visas so they can come and go, regulating the border to encourage people to use legal channels, and investing in Mexico to reduce the economic pressures that lead to undocumented immigration. With respect to the last suggestion, I am encouraged that President Obama was the only candidate in the 2007-2008 election cycle to propose working to promote development in Mexico as a solution to undocumented immigration.
PT: Why should the United States invest in building infrastructure in México, as opposed to “protecting its borders”?
RG: A peaceful and prosperous Mexico is in our national interest. The public health threat posed by the H1N1 outbreak, the national security threat presented by warring drug cartels, and the myriad of social and economic problems associated with undocumented immigration, for example, have demonstrated like never before that Mexico’s problems are indeed our problems too. When thinking about our immigration policy, the question thus becomes whether spending $10 billion per year on border control could be spent more effectively to reduce poverty in Mexico. Ignoring Mexico’s problems and attempting to hide them behind a wall will help no one.
Download: Interview with Roy Germano