When Roy Germano, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government, ventured into Mexico’s rural farmlands and villages in 2007 to gather research for his dissertation on Mexican immigration and politics, he couldn’t shake his frustration with the tone and substance of the heated immigration debate in the United States. He knew he had to do something to create a better understanding of why people migrate and what happens to the families left behind in Mexico.
Germano, who is finishing a doctoral degree in political science, singlehandedly filmed, edited, directed and produced a 55-minute documentary titled “The Other Side of Immigration.” Through more than 700 interviews with the families left behind by U.S.-bound migrant workers, Germano illuminates Mexico’s most crippling economic hardships, including the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on poor farmers, the country’s vicious cycle of poverty spurred by a corrupt government, and the social pressures on Mexicans to seek a better way of life.
The Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, estimates 11.5 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States today. In 2008, they sent $26 billion back to their families in Mexico in 2008.
We sat down with Germano, who is traveling the country presenting and discussing the film, to learn more about his work.
What is the ultimate goal you hope to achieve from making this film?
I hope those who see my film walk away feeling more connected to a population that they may have misunderstood or not known very much about, realizing that most people — Mexican or American, citizen or immigrant — are more similar than we are different, motivated to survive, take care of our families and be recognized for our inherent worth as human beings.
How were you able to pull off a film of this magnitude without a staff, funding, film crew or even formal training in filmmaking?
Anytime I felt overwhelmed by the challenges of making “The Other Side of Immigration,” I was reminded by the people in the film (by way of the interviews I was editing) that it would be irresponsible of me not to do everything I could to make sure Americans had access to their insights. That kept me going every step of the way.
How will this film inspire viewers to help improve Mexico’s infrastructure?
I tend to think of “The Other Side of Immigration” less as a piece of art or entertainment than as an advertisement for a set of ideas. The most basic idea — one I think most people can agree on — is that the visa laws of another country would matter very little to any of us if our children were hungry and we needed to find some way to feed them. I suspect that most Americans would not think twice about migrating illegally to Canada if the U.S. economy was in ruins, or if we didn’t have things like unemployment compensation or food stamps, and there were plenty of high-wage jobs to be done in Canada. By encouraging viewers to put themselves in the shoes of those who are doing the immigrating, I hope the film leaves Americans feeling uncomfortable with an immigration policy whose primary mission is to restrict entry — an immigration policy that does nothing to address the factors that trigger and perpetuate undocumented immigration (especially those factors that the U.S. has played some part in exacerbating). And if enough Americans voice their discomfort with this approach, our policymakers will take note and, I hope, begin cooperating more with the Mexican government to reduce emigration pressures at their source.
Throughout the filming and interviewing process did you encounter any startling discoveries?
One thing I learned from my interviews with Mexican policymakers is that the Mexican government has established many interesting subsidization programs to help people in the rural areas start small businesses or increase yields on their farms. The problem, however, is that those who could benefit most from these programs rarely know of their existence or how to go about obtaining funding. Part of the problem is corruption, budgetary constraints and the Mexican government’s modest outreach efforts. But arguably an even bigger problem is that the process of applying for such funding is extremely complicated and requires a level of literacy that many people in the rural areas simply do not have.
Your film touched on some possible solutions to Mexico’s problems. Could you give me an example of one of those solutions?
The people I interviewed discussed the need for a guest-worker program to regulate the immigration that, fueled by economic necessity and perpetuated by decades of momentum, cannot be stopped with walls or border guards. The argument for such a program is that it would generate new tax revenue, satisfy demand for low-skilled labor, help us keep tabs on who is crossing the border and bring hardworking people out of the shadows and give them the rights they deserve as human beings. At the same time, such a program would allow the many Mexicans who prefer to work here temporarily the chance to save some money, return to their families in Mexico and come back in the future when times get tough.
How can we all benefit from improving Mexico’s economy?
Working to improve the Mexican economy is not just in our moral interest. It is also 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, have demonstrated like never before that Mexico’s problems are indeed our problems, too. When thinking about 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.
Learn more about the documentary and how to support Germano’s work.