Humanizing the Immigration Debate

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Abby Haley traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona with her camera in hand to film the SOA Watch Border Encuentro.
She quickly learned that to maximize her impact as a documentary filmmaker, she couldn’t remove herself from the situation she was documenting.

What is SOA Watch?

The School of the Americas Watch held its second annual Border Encuentro November 10-12 at the U.S./Mexico border in Arizona. SOA Watch is a grassroots non-violent organization that started with the purpose of closing the School of the Americas and other similar U.S. institutions that provide military training to people in Latin America. The organization has recently focused on efforts to demilitarize the U.S./Mexico border. 

The group described this year’s 2nd Border Encuentro as, “a direct response to the call for solidarity with the border communities to resist militarization, support refugees and migrants, and to denounce the U.S. military, political and economic policies in Latin America that create the conditions for forced displacement and violence.”

A human first, filmmaker second

Ithaca College Documentary Studies and Production student Abby Haley attended the Border Encuentro with the intent of documenting the event. She quickly realized that she could not just be a objective videographer in the background — she had to be a “human being, ready to learn and absorb everything.”

Haley has been active in advocating for incarceration rights and environmental justice issues in the past, but said she had not given much thought to immigration prior to making the trip. One of her biggest takeaways from the experience was realizing the interconnectivity of all social justice issues.

“If you’re fighting for, in my case, rights for incarcerated people, you also need to be fighting for the rights of immigrants, because a lot of the time they are the ones who are unjustly detained before they are deported,” Haley said.

Militarization and privatization of border security

Haley hopes to return to the border to capture more stories from people affected by U.S. immigration laws and increased border security. In recent years, staffing of the U.S. Border Patrol and surveillance technology at the border have both increased drastically. It has been reported that the U.S. government spends more on immigration enforcement than all other federal criminal law.

A major point of controversy is the stake that private prisons have in tough immigration laws. Mother Jones reported that as of November, 65 percent of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees were held in facilities run by private prison companies. “Since Trump’s election, private prison stocks have soared, and two new, for-profit detention centers are opening in Georgia and Texas.”

This is all despite attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border remaining at historic lows. American Progress reports that current apprehension levels are among the lowest since the 1970s.

Humanizing the issue

Haley realized the importance of collecting and sharing stories of individuals to humanize the issues raised in what has been a recently highly politicized debate around immigration.

“When I went down there, I had the intention of being a documentarian and bringing it all back and piecing it together into… an exact reiteration of what happened. I’ve realized I really need to go through the footage and see what stories I can tell, and how I can humanize these people.”

She hopes to use her platform as a documentary filmmaker to raise awareness and change the narrative around immigration reform. Haley said what’s special about documentaries is their power to evoke emotional responses.

“You can cry at a documentary, but it’s not very likely that you’re going to cry — for the same reasons at least — from reading a journalistic article.”

Watch Haley’s recap of her experience at the border below.

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