Al Jazeera America's 'Borderland' Walks in the Shoes of the Immigrant Dead

It is human nature to harshly judge others we disagree with or disapprove of, until we are actually exposed to the life experiences that have shaped their choices and worldview.
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It is an old saying we've all heard: "Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes."

It is human nature to harshly judge others we disagree with or disapprove of, until we are actually exposed to the life experiences that have shaped their choices and worldview. All of our spiritual traditions teach compassion at their root, and the first step toward developing compassion is to learn empathy. To see another person's point of view, even if we don't share it, and to understand the events that have shaped their perspective is the moment when we transcend our animal natures and glimpse something higher within our souls.

Al Jazeera America has taken that spiritual truth and brought it home in a heart-wrenching way through its documentary series, Borderland, which premieres on Sunday, April 13 (9 E/6 P). The debate over immigration policies in the United States brings out deep passions, but for most Americans it remains an intellectual argument. The discussion is colored with emotions about identity and race, but for most Americans it remains a theoretical debate, divorced from their own day-to-day life experience. Arguments about building border walls to keep out undocumented immigrants, or about providing amnesty to the 11.7 million "illegals" currently residing the United States, are largely conducted by people who have no direct experience of what it means to slip into another country and try to survive in the shadows of a new society. Borderland changes that by literally taking six ordinary Americans and have them go through the process of crossing into the United States from Mexico. And the journey leaves them all shaken and changed forever.

The six people who embark on this remarkable experience come from a variety of backgrounds and political beliefs. Kishana is an African-American mother who was on the 97th floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center on September 11. Even though the hijackers all entered the country legally, the trauma of that day has hardened her views on foreigners to the point that she considers herself xenophobic. As Kishana says: "If I knew I had a neighbor that was an illegal immigrant for a fact, I will call INS and turn them in."

Along with her is Gary, a Washington State farmer whose views on undocumented immigrants are shaped by practical necessity. They are the field hands he needs to bring in the harvest, wiling to do menial jobs most Americans reject, and without them his family business could not survive. Lis-Marie, a legal immigrant from Nicaragua, joins the team as an activist for farm workers like people Gary employs, and finds herself in conflict with Randy, a former Constitution Party candidate for governor of Illinois. Randy opposes amnesty, but has never been to the border before and wants to see for himself what is happening on the ground. Joining them is Alex, a skateboarding New York artist who rejects the very notion of borders as inhuman, an idea firmly resisted by Alison, a Republican aide who has never been outside the United States and first secured a passport to participate in Borderland.

The first stop for this motley crew reveals that this will be a travelogue that will haunt them forever. The six participants are brought to a morgue in southern Arizona, where they are shown the bodies of more than 150 illegal immigrants who died in the effort to enter America. Shaken by the human cost of the issue, the six travelers are then asked to retrace the journeys of three of the dead to learn what they experienced on the road to their final destination. Omar Lopez, age 13, from Guatemala, who died in the desert trying to reunite with his mother and siblings in Phoenix. Claudeth Sanchez, age 21, from southern Mexico, wanted to come to America and send money back to her impoverished mother, who begged her not to go. Claudeth, too, was found dead in the scorching desert. And Maira Zelaya, age 39, who had been living as an undocumented immigrant since she was a child in Des Moines, Iowa, when she was discovered by immigration agents and deported to El Salvador. Seeking to return to the country she considered home, Maira paid a smuggler to help her cross back in to the United States. She never made it.

The show follows the journey of the six Americans as they experience what the three deceased migrants went through to come to America. They embark on an arduous journey to Guatemala, El Salvador and Chiapas, Mexico. The travelers see first hand the gangland violence in El Salvador that caused Maira to seek a desperate return to America. They work the same mountainous coffee plantation in Guatemala that 13-year-old Omar fled. They traverse the jungles of Mexico with a special armed task force that protects the migrants from local gangs. And they travel on La Bestia -- the train migrants call "the Beast" -- as many of the hundreds of migrants on board will die en route to the border, and eight out of 10 women will be raped. They see how migrant women pack not only water and socks, but also contraceptives for the inevitable sexual assaults they will experience. The journey culminates as they cross the desert through the infamous "valley of death" that consumed the three people whose lives they have been retracing. As they face searing heat during the day, and below zero temperatures at night, the six Americans learn what "the borderland" truly is.

The show is unrelenting in its brutal honesty about migrant lives. But it is not "liberal propaganda" and presents the full complexity of the issue, from showing the dangers faced by American ranchers from drug smugglers, to the deadly cost paid by Mexican soldiers confronting the cartels. Indeed, both reviewers on the right and the left have embraced Borderland for its gritty honesty.

Borderland does not provide answers to the difficult problem of illegal immigration, but it shows the humanity of everyone involved in the process. By the end of the journey, the six Americans have been overwhelmed by the experience, and many of their views have changed in unexpected ways. And even if they don't know how to solve this problem, the participants have come away with something desperately needed in the debate. Empathy.

Empathy does not mean embracing another point of view, but of understanding the humanity that shaped it. And in the process, we may be forced to examine how much of our own perspectives are based in objective truth or are colored by our own unique experiences. And maybe, just maybe, empathy will allow us to see when we have been wrong and have wronged our neighbor.

Borderland will touch you. It will make you angry. And it will make you weep. And in the process, you will never look at the issue of illegal immigration the same way again.

Kamran Pasha is a Hollywood filmmaker and the author of Shadow of the Swords, a novel on the Crusades (Simon & Schuster; June 2010). For more information please visit:

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