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What it Got Right and Wrong

A Review of Al Jazeera’s “Borderland”

by ANDREW SMOLSKI

Al Jazeera America’s recent program “Borderland” introduced a novel idea into the immigration debate. Exit the pundits, enter the citizenry and then put that citizenry in the position of a migrant. This was a bold move on many levels, not the least of which was putting the human back into debates over public policy. Operating within the reality T.V. genre, it produced a pathos type argument to understand migration as a phenomenon here in the world, as an event lived and re-lived by millions who attempt the long trek north to the Empire from Central and South America.

However, it also shows the limits placed on public debate. “Borderland” is a show that breaks down barriers, and in the same instance, demonstrates through omission further barriers to be overcome. By producing a series based almost absolutely on subjective experience, Al Jazeera America was able, to a large extent, to exit out context. It was as if the countries south of the border had created their own hell without interference. They became countries without histories. The objective constellation that makes each subjective story part of a larger narrative was missing.

In not so many words then, I would like to offer praise and critique. Both are due, for I do not think this was a project without merit, but instead a work in progress towards a mainstream that can produce a series melding the subjective and objective into a narrative from below. It has begun a slow, arduous process of moving the box manufacturing consent away from the deleterious effects of psychotic pundits whose unbounded hate for the “Other” has for too long sullied the spirit of justice. Our purpose is to continuing realigning the box, to make the intuitive reaction one based on justice, rather than one based on a nationalist, corrosive xenophobia.

The show featured six participants, three pro-immigrant and three anti-immigrant, who are paired with each other and follow the journey of three immigrants who died attempting to reach the United States. The three pro-immigrant participants are Gary the farmer, Lis-Marie the activist, and Alex the artist. The three anti-immigrant participants are Kishana the blogger, Randy the ex-marine, and Alison the Republican aide. The participants’ stories are not integral to the series, making only minor appearances throughout the show; such as Lis-Marie being an immigrant herself, or Kishana being in the World Trade Towers on 9-11. The purpose was not to discuss being American, but instead to place an American in the situation of a migrant, in the place of the “Other”. It is an exercise in giving life to a topic typically stultified by the negative abstract imaginary fuelling fantastical beliefs about immigration and migrants.

They begin their journey in the Pima County morgue where they receive a dossier on their respective immigrant and then are flown to each immigrant’s hometown to meet with family and develop the narrative; Usuluatan, El Salvador for Maira, Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico for Claudeth, and El Porvenir, Guatemala for Omar. The goal given to them by the morgue’s director, who also proffers challenges throughout the four episode series via a computer, is to give the immigrants back their story. By giving Omar, the twelve-year old boy, back his story, that is to reconstruct his life through not only family memories, but as well his actual journey, they are able to relate, to understand the precarious predicament of a migrant. This act allows each individual to sense that their imagined symbol of the migrant is nothing more than a fantasy with little relation to the concrete experience of life; its dangers, threats and life-taking capacity.

This was stated by the directors as their intent, to utilize an “immersive” approach that moves away from the abstract wrangling of policy-makers and the inane speech of pundits. And it does seem to operate efficiently on the views of the anti-immigrant participants, whose views evolve to a position that attempts to make sense of their experience, of the horrendous and brutal funneling of human beings to the most extreme parts of the border. It becomes nearly impossible, unless someone wanted to jettison all moral and ethical sensibility, to not recognize this policy as an act of cruelty that should be condemned as a crime against humanity.

The production of subjective experience pushing participants to approximate their own sense of humanity to the lives of those previously considered “Other” is what “Borderland” got right. It plays on the humanitarian and empathic impulse inside each of us, on the visceral reaction we display when confronted with the horrors of an unjust world that piles bodies all around through the brutality of its machinations. Yet, it stumbles to give us any further context.

What would it mean to give context to immigration? Let’s look at the discussion Randy and Alex have while in El Salvador. Randy points to the high levels of violence in El Salvador and claims that this is a result of their culture. Randy never reverses his belief about this claim, and Alex is only able to critique it as an over-generalization of the population. History does not enter into the discussion. What would it mean to construct a history of El Salvador that relates to immigration?

We would need to discuss the death squads during the 80s, some trained and supported by the US government, as an act of state terrorism committed against the population. We would need to discuss the killing of Archbishop Oscar Romero as a form of crushing dissent, a way to destroy civil society and political solidarity. We would need to discuss the connections between El Salvadorian and United Statesian elites, their shared class interests and its detrimental effects on the domestic economy of El Salvador. We would need to weave this together in order to understand how such violence would lead to more violence, the rise in gang culture, the marginalization of the youth, the lack of security for women, the lack of economic opportunity, and then how that context leads to immigration as something forced on the population as the only option.

The context would become a story of empire and global capitalism, a story of the constant uprooting of entire populations in the search for profit and power. Otherwise, the constant trash-talking of all the immigrants’ countries becomes a form of post-modern racism, as Slavoj Zizek has termed it. Yes, the participants began to understand the subjective experience, only at the expense of being able to maintain their beliefs about each country and developing a cultural hierarchy that sustains an institutional racism, the ability to exit out the objective back-drop. Not true for all participants, but at least four of the six (Gary, Randy, Kishana, and Alison), the ones who also challenged the immigrants for going when it was dangerous, as if the migrants didn’t know already.

We should be immersed in the subjective experiences of others, while at the same time understanding how it is connected to a larger objective system at work. “Borderlands” begins the slow trek towards having a debate molded in this manner, but it did fall short. I have hope, and Al Jazeera America is making a new direction for journalism in the United States. Now, if they can bring it just a step further.

Andrew Smolski is an anarchist sociologist based in Texas. He can be reached at andrew.smolski@gmail.com