The opening scene is as harrowing as it is prognostic: Inside a modest brick building that houses the South Texas Human Rights Center, Eddie Canales, a retired union organizer turned migrant rights activist, receives a phone call. The voice on the other end alerts him to the sighting of a migrant somewhere in the thicket of a private Texas ranch—and at that point, a solemn look settles on his face. When he arrives at the location, the truth is revealed to the viewer: Canales was led to the site of an unidentified corpse. Now it’s his job to find out who it was.
Co-directed and produced by Jeff Bemiss and Lisa Molomot, Missing in Brooks County is a documentary that follows two American families coming to Brooks County, Texas, in search of loved ones lost while attempting to cross into the United States. One family has been searching for their son, Homero Roman Gómez, for two years. Roman Gómez grew up in the United States with a brother who was a U.S. resident and two other siblings who were citizens, but he was himself undocumented. He was deported back to his origin country of Mexico after receiving a traffic ticket and went missing while attempting to return. The film also follows the family of 18-year-old Juan Maceda Salazar, who also crossed from Mexico into the United States to reunite with his cousin Moises Zavala. Both Roman Gómez and Maceda Salazar went missing while trying to circumvent the busiest border checkpoint in Texas. According to the film, the area of Brooks County also sees the highest quantity of migrant deaths in the country. Describing the area he oversees, which includes that checkpoint, the sheriff of Brooks County calls it “the largest cemetery in the United States.”
The film suggests that the problems in Brooks County are indicative of a broken immigration system, and its casualties haunt the entirety of the 1,954-mile southern U.S. border: Yearly, thousands of migrants traveling northward from Central America risk dehydration, kidnapping, and exposure crossing through wild rivers and desert landscapes to escape violence, corruption, and crime.
Much of the responsibility for these deaths, the film argues, is with the Clinton administration’s decision to enact a policy of deterrence in 1994, building on an already-punitive enforcement of borders by the previous government. President George H.W. Bush pushed to increase immigrant detention, expand military support of counterdrug efforts, and remove the due process rights of migrants with criminal convictions, while his successor Bill Clinton focused on preventing immigration altogether by cutting off major border routes. Key parts of the U.S.-Mexico border were shut, funneling wayfaring migrants into the region’s most brutal desert terrain. Since 1998, migrants’ chances of dying at the border versus being apprehended have risen some 20 percent, and between 1998 and 2019, the U.S. Border Patrol recorded nearly 8,000 migrant deaths at the southern border. The documentary, meanwhile, contends that this number is actually closer to 20,000, and that the bodies of only 1 in 5 migrants are actually found and identified.
Even as the U.S. government has focused its efforts for decades on enforcement of the border’s security apparatus, it has encouraged humanitarian efforts abroad as the world’s biggest provider of relief funds. Since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, spending on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has nearly tripled, from $3.3 billion to $8.3 billion. The Trump administration extended this hard-line approach, separating migrant families at the southern border, pouring $25 billion into the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, and forcing asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico for court hearings. Despite enacting new executive orders on his first day in office, and again this month, to tamp down many of his predecessor Donald Trump’s harsh immigration policies, U.S. President Joe Biden has not yet indicated if he will roll back any of these decades of deterrence measures—or if he will improve the legal Gordian knot faced by asylum-seekers.
“One of our most significant concerns at this point is that the Biden administration has not committed to end the Trump administration’s illegal policy of expelling asylum-seekers,” Eleanor Acer, the senior director of refugee protection at Human Rights First, told Foreign Policy. She was referring to Trump’s use of public health authority to block asylum-seekers from entering the United States during the coronavirus pandemic. While the Biden administration has committed to assessing these policies, Acer wants to see Biden restore the asylum process to at least what it was before the Trump era.
Advocates also worry that Biden will not do enough to alleviate the danger endemic to border crossings. “[We need to] … focus on our ports of entry to create a more welcoming system that can then meet our domestic and international human rights obligations when it comes to people who are seeking safety in our country,” said Vicki Gaubeca, who is the director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, during a talk at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival after a digital screening of Missing in Brooks County.
Biden’s more humane position on immigration is reflected in his appointments. Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s pick to head the Department of Homeland Security, played a key role in implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative under the Obama administration, which shielded 700,000 young immigrants from deportation. And Brian Nichols—the current U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe whom Biden is reportedly considering nominating for assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs—has served in diplomatic positions across Latin America and notably condemned the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, the kind of public criticism that high-ranking American diplomats rarely make.
Biden’s preliminary steps in the region have already demonstrated a desire to understand—and address—the issues that cause migrants to leave their homes in the first place.
As vice president under Obama, Biden was “one of the biggest promoters of anti-corruption efforts in Central America,” Maureen Meyer, who is the vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Foreign Policy. She noted that in 2015 Biden visited Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina to persuade him to renew the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG)—a United Nations-supported independent anti-corruption organization—using U.S. aid as a bargaining chip. Once it was renewed, CICIG led a mission that arrested Pérez Molina later that year for leading a customs racket.
Biden has said he plans to install a regional commission to address corruption and impunity in Central America. This commission will be tasked with forming a strategy to address the decades of instability, violence, and economic insecurity in the countries from which the United States has seen the most migrants. (Mexico is the biggest source.) Beyond announcing the planned commission, Biden has also introduced legislation that would extend protections to children coming from Central America, an Obama-era policy that Trump ended. He also pledged to increase the numbers of refugees allowed into the United States each year to 125,000, a move that comes after Trump slashed the cap to just 15,000, the lowest number of refugees allowed into the U.S. since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980.
“We want to put in place an immigration process here that is humane, that is moral, that considers applications for refugees … in a way that treats people as human beings,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Feb. 2.
In the meantime, the border remains a dangerous place. In a scene toward the end of the film, Eddie Canales, who has created and maintained over a dozen makeshift water stations for migrants throughout Brooks County, finds one vandalized with the words “Build the Wall Now.” We watch as Canales painstakingly scrubs—and then scrapes—the handwritten white words off of the barrel. Later, he learns from a news broadcast that several of his other water stations have been stolen. “This is a humanitarian effort, so if you’re removing the stations, what’s the effort?” Canales asks, clearly frustrated. “You’d rather have people die?”