Al Jazeera Series Depicts U.S. Problem

‘Borderland’ Is to Debut on Al Jazeera America


APRIL 11, 2014

New York Times


It turns out that there is a reason to watch Al Jazeera America. Now that CNN is on a cable news Rumspringa, running wild with the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, viewers interested in other news have a place to go.

It’s not fancy. The Qatari-owned Al Jazeera America, which bought Al Gore’s Current TV last year, has a washed-out, bare-bones look to it, without the snazzy backdrops, swirling graphics and amped-up pop music segues common to other news channels. Anchors are a sober, no-nonsense lot, and some of them are familiar, like Ali Velshi, a CNN alumnus, or Ray Suarez, who worked previously at “PBS News Hour.” (The channel’s ambitious expansion has been scaled back a little, with dozens of layoffs this week.)

The coverage is thorough, solemn, studiously bland and unemotional, and varied. American news — the Nasdaq market plunge, the Masters golf tournament, bus crashes and ominous weather fronts — are mixed in with reports about the crisis in Ukraine, flooding in the Solomon Islands or a measles outbreak in Syria.

So, in contrast, “Borderland,” a new documentary series that begins on Sunday, is quite startling. This is a serious four-part look at the illegal-immigration crisis reported in the style and format of “The Amazing Race” or “Big Brother.”

The producers have cast six Americans who match reality-show stereotypes — Alison, a blond Arkansas Republican and former bikini model; Alex, a New York City artist and skateboarder; Lis-Marie, a Nicaraguan-born immigrants’ rights activist from Florida; Randy, a former Marine turned conservative Illinois radio host; Kishana, a fashion blogger from Las Vegas; and Gary, a Washington State potato and asparagus farmer — and thrown them together at the Arizona border with Mexico.

Instead of clashing in a group house or on a deserted island, the six volunteers, ranging in age from their mid-20s to mid-50s, have to confront their own misconceptions while retracing the steps of immigrants who died trying to cross into the United States.

At first, the hammy music and reality-show editing make “Borderland” look a little cheesy, but that wears off. The volunteers pair off into teams and take their assignments to heart. Very quickly, they become emotionally involved with the migrants who died, whose stories they research firsthand, traveling to places like El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, and witnessing drug cartels, human traffickers and other dangers.

 Randy on Train

Randy Stufflebeam, foreground with beard, and other participants in “Borderland” in Mexico, tracing migrants’ journeys. Credit Al Jazeera America

The Pima County, Ariz., chief medical examiner, Dr. Gregory Hess, serves as their host, and begins their journey at the morgue, which he calls “ground zero for the immigration debate.”

Randy, who initially calls illegal immigrants “parasites” and “moochers,” begins to soften in Des Moines, interviewing the mother of Maira Zelaya, a refugee from El Salvador who worked illegally as an office cleaner in Iowa for nine years until she was deported in 2009. Desperate to rejoin her family in Iowa, Ms. Zelaya paid a smuggler to guide her to the Arizona border and died in the desert at the age of 39.

Alex, who begins the journey blithely declaring that there should be no borders whatsoever, starts to change in El Salvador, when he sees a dead body on the street, a casualty of a drug cartel quarrel.

Alison, a born-again Christian who has the word “saved” tattooed on her arm and is shown shooting at a firing range, says illegal immigrants should be deported. “We don’t know who these people are,” she says early on. “We don’t know if they’ve murdered somebody, if they’ve raped a child.”

Alison had never traveled outside the United States. In Guatemala, she gains a better understanding of the desperation that drives migrants when she and Lis-Marie meet the family of Omar Lopez, who was 13 when he died, trying to get to his mother and siblings in Phoenix. The family didn’t learn what happened to him for almost two years.

Alison is moved by the kindness of Omar’s relatives and appalled by their living conditions. Invited to stay overnight in the tiny, crumbling wooden shack where Omar was raised, Alison almost loses it, saying, “It’s spooky that it’s his house, and I’m already afraid just being here in general, so putting myself in this open space really freaks me out.”

She pulls herself together, and has little trouble making the arduous route from Guatemala through Mexico and across the same desert where Omar died. But she says the experience has changed her forever.

All six are deeply affected by what they see, and none come away with a workable solution. They all sympathize with the migrants and wish them more humane treatment, but not all of them, at journey’s end, believe that the United States should ease its immigration policies. Mostly, they discover how complicated and painful the issue is.

“Borderland” is exploitative in a good way, using the ignorance of ordinary Americans to enlighten viewers about a problem so intractable that it’s often easier not to look.

A version of this article appears in print on April 12, 2014, on Page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Al Jazeera Series Depicts U.S. Problem.

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