Why the So-Called 'Immigration Debate' Is a Farce

An interview with Jon Wetterau, director of the documentary 'Mexican Dream,' on the devastating effect of emigration on Mexican families and indigenous communities.

For the most part, the national conversation around Mexican immigration in the U.S. is almost singularly focused on how the issue affects North Americans. Even broader discussions—meaning those that get far beyond political demagoguery and xenophobia—are too often pathologizing or patronizing, with little insight into the complex and intersecting issues affecting millions of lives torn between the two countries.

Jon Wetterau and Rogelio Alex Ruiz Euler, co-directors of Mexican Dream (Sueño Mexicano), have made a film documenting the parts of the story that are often overlooked or depicted inaccurately. Shot in the U.S. and Mexico over three years, the documentary offers a stark look at the struggles faced by its subjects both in America and at home. The starting point, both filmically and for the families it follows, is Sierra Mixteca, the poorest region in the poorest state in Mexico. The tiny pueblito of Magdalena Peñasco has become a labor feeder for Hormel Foods’ pork factory, where products like Spam are made, located far across the border in Austin, Minnesota. While the treacherous journey north offers better economic possibilities, those who undertake it find a whole other set of challenges await. Meanwhile, mass emigration inevitably takes a tremendous toll on Magdalena and those left behind. Mexican Dream examines the myriad problems migrants face, such as “labor issues, poverty, alienation [and] family breakdown," and reveals how ultimately, business and government in both countries derive the greatest benefit from this peculiar labor exchange.

Wetterau named the film in homage to the Oscar-winning 1990 documentary American Dream, about the failed meatpacker strike at the same Hormel factory three decades earlier. He sat down with me for a conversation about how the documentary came about, the destructiveness of NAFTA and the vicious cycle that forces migrants north.

Kali Holloway: Can you tell me the genesis of this film—how you decided to make this movie and the events that led up to this decision?

Jon Wetterau: In 2008, [co-director] Alex [Ruiz Euler], who's from Mexico City originally, was doing research in Southern Mexico for his poli-sci PhD from the University of California at San Diego. He was looking into water quality and distribution rights in poor and indigenous rural communities, and was encountering so many families who suffered the effects of emigration. It’s been a hot issue for a while, so he got the idea to make a documentary following a migrant from their home to the U.S. He met folks working for Catholic charity organizations—which are pretty much the only form of welfare charity or social service provider in Mexico—and the Casas de Migrantes, which are safe houses where migrants, Mexicans and people passing through from other Central American countries can get a bed and some food. Or, if necessary, even medical care, for a night or a few days on their journey. Statistics showed the municipality of Magdalena Peñasco,Tlaxiaco Condado in Oaxaca state had the highest rate of emigration in the republic. He and I know each other through mutual friends, and I'd spent time in Mexico City and Oaxaca before. And he knew I'd made a film in Cameroon and owned a professional DVCam. So he asked me if I wanted to visit the side of Oaxaca the tourists never see, and tromp through fields and try to maybe even cross the border with a migrant. So off [we went] to the mountains of the Sierra Mixteca.

He went first and surveyed the scene, and I followed a week later. We spent three weeks hosted by a sympathetic priest at the local parish. At first it took some effort to gain the locals' trust, but soon enough we had people eager to record their stories of migration. We met a white woman who’s a Methodist minister from the U.S. who, surprisingly, had spent a lot of time over years in the community. She told us she lived in a small town in Minnesota where most of the Mixtec migrants go when they come to the U.S. We'd heard a few people mention working in meatpacking [in the states], but she told us we were welcome to stay with her and her family if we wanted to go there.

We came to realize that we weren't going to find anyone embarking on the journey during summer months and that it was kind of foolhardy in the first place, so we decided to go in a different direction. We’d already interviewed many people in Oaxaca about their histories in relation to migration, so we went to Austin, Minnesota, to find their relatives. People there looked at us warily at first, but when they found out we’d been to Magdalena, they loved us and grew to trust us. We wound up going back to Magdalena and Minnesota twice each in the following three years and we really had the film done in 2012. But it took another year and a half to get finishing funds together with crowdfunding, and then to get everything done so we could premiere in March 2014 at the Queens World Film Festival.

KH: How much did you know about the issues in the film before you started shooting?

JW: I knew as much as most informed citizens. I’m from New York City, so I’ve also spent my life surrounded by people from all over. I didn’t have an interest in immigration specifically, but I always thought its problems highlight the absurdity of the nation-state. And what I came to find out was that’s even more true than I’d ever thought. U.S. immigration policy is impotent by design. I don’t know if it drags wages down, but the workers definitely work for less than U.S. citizens, so they’re good for business. And we all know that business is what drives America.

What people always seem to miss is the desperation these immigrants are coming from. Like most post-colonial countries there’s always been extreme poverty, but economic globalization—and particularly Bill Clinton’s NAFTA—screwed the small Mexican farmer. A campesino who plants corn or vegetables used to be able to sell his produce in Mexico City or whatever metropolis or provincial capital there is nearby. He can’t compete against Green Giant now. It’s really sad. People in Magdalena are mostly eating beans and flowers on tortillas. Meat is a luxury. And the only way to have any cash is to go to the U.S. The influx of material wants only grows with time, even in indigenous communities. I think this is almost worse than overt colonialism—the creep of consumer society.

One of the most important things I didn't know, and most probably don't, is that Mexico gave a form of self-governance to its indigenous people in 1995. That system relies on a form of conscripted community service and labor that’s supposedly based in tribal tradition. The people work land communally and able-bodied men go to help on short-term public works projects for no pay. In a sense, this may be a progressive system of organization in poor, rural communities when it comes to one-time, day-long projects that are benefiting the immediate community. But the community service also drafts young men, primarily those who have recently returned from a stint in the U.S. and are under, say, age 30, to work regular jobs, like school janitor or traffic cop, for two or three years! It’s usually full-time, so they can't take any money they saved and do anything constructive with it, like starting a business. They work for the municipality for free, so taxes don't have to go toward making sure there's a traffic cop in the only big intersection in Tlaxiaco or that the schools in the Sierra Mixteca have janitors.

Those types of jobs pay if you get one in Mexico City, probably very little, but something. The government's attitude is this paternalistic chauvinism, like, those "little indigenous people" can take care of themselves when it comes to small things, like janitors and traffic police, because they've got nothing better to do with their time. These laws were only passed in the early ‘90s when indigenous groups all over the country were demanding self-rule, so the government's response was to grant it partially and use it as an excuse to under-fund local governments. This is a big part of why people from indigenous areas, which are the poorest areas, with all the problems poverty brings, have to go north, to the U.S.

KH: Obviously, this is a timely topic, and immigration is being discussed—and exploited—in a lot of places right now, including here in the U.S. as we head into a general election. Can you tell me what’s being left out of the discussion, what’s being discussed in the wrong way, and just your thoughts on all that?

JW: What’s being left out of the discussion is that the so-called immigration debate is a farce. Borders are arbitrary lines in the sand to divide humans, and states use currency as an instrument of trade and oppression. That’s why you see the same thing happening all over the world, whether it be Central Americans in the U.S. or Africans and refugees from parts of the Middle East and Asia in Europe or even Nicaraguans in Costa Rica. I came to realize over the making of this film that opening the border would be terrible for the Mexican people. In Magdalena, more than half the men are gone. They would all be gone if the liberal ideal of an open border was announced tomorrow. There wouldn’t just not be any men; maybe most of the population would emigrate if they could legally. The pretty much devastating effect of emigration on these families, and particularly indigenous communities and women, is highlighted in the documentary.

KH: I read an article recently about how, for the first time in more than 40 years, there are more Mexican immigrants returning to Mexico than coming to the U.S. The overwhelming majority of those people weren't deported, they went back of their own volition. Obviously, we still see a number of people coming from Central America and other places, but I wondered if you had any thoughts on this turnaround?

JW: Those reports don’t really surprise me, but probably would have before I started working on this documentary. Almost everyone we met wants to go back! A lot of people whose kids are born here, so they’re citizens, actually send their kids back to Mexico to live with their grandparents for high school so they don’t have to go to public schools in the mostly poor neighborhoods in American cities where most immigrants live. They feel their kids might get into gangs and some of the other pathologies that afflict poor and minority teenagers. And high schools in Mexico are generally pretty good. Only the elite can make it past junior high there, so once you [reach junior high school], the schools are very disciplined and students are probably more serious than your average U.S. school.

Many can’t go back because if they leave, they might not be able to get back to the states again. [Film subjects] Benjamin and Elvira went after their first son was born to meet the grandparents. It cost them a few thousand bucks to be led back by a coyote, and they wound up nearly dying of thirst in the desert, drinking their own urine and other horrible stuff. So they’ll never go back again now, at least not until they go back for good when their kids are of age. We actually have them telling that story on tape but we didn’t use it because they broke into tears and it would’ve been too exploitative to use.

Israel went back, though we’ll see how long before his savings are spent and he winds up coming back [to the U.S.]. I mean, I hope not, because I know it’s not what he really wants. But if I had to put money on it, I’d gamble he will because, as Silvestre says in the film, it’s a vicious cycle that happens to most people. So, what the press is saying is probably right. The trend of [undocumented immigrants] going back was definitely big during the recession. Low-wage labor is still reeling from the aftereffects, and things only get worse for workers in this country. So, I’m not surprised. Bush’s wall or law enforcement isn’t what’s causing [the immigrants] to leave. They would rather be at home. And right now, it’s less attractive than ever to be here.

KH: What insights did you gain around all the issues the film touches upon?

JW: I really have to credit Alex for informing this point of view: it’s not just in U.S. businesses’ interest to allow undocumented workers in, it’s in the Mexican government’s interest as well. It provides economic opportunity for the people in a poor country with very little. That helps quell dissent. Mexico may have the narco wars going on, but state oppression is rarely protested and almost never fought against, except for isolated cases like the Zapatistas or those student protesters in Ayotzinapa. It’s almost like narco traffic or leaving are the only two ways to earn money if you’re poor, one being more lucrative and more dangerous—though both are dangerous. But I think the existence of these outlets is one of the reasons that you’ve never seen the kind of socialist uprisings in Mexico, at least not since 1911, that you saw post-war in the rest of Latin America.

KH: Are there any updates on any of the film subjects?

JW: A lot has happened since we last shot in Minnesota. Hormel has laid off a lot of its Latino employees. It wasn’t due to any crackdown on residency status or anything, at least not overtly. It coincided with Hormel’s hiring of many African refugees that the state of Minnesota has taken in from the U.S. State Department.

Raul was a foreman making more than $20 an hour, which is pretty good money in rural Minnesota. Last we heard, he was a janitor at a truck stop off the books for minimum wage. Benjamin lost his job at Quality Pork, Hormel’s shell company for slaughtering. (They officially only do meatpacking; they have this separate entity attached to their factory for some sort of rudimentary PETA subterfuge.) When we were last there, he’d just gotten a job at a horse farm and was actually quite happy about that, though he had to drive his son a long distance to get him to school and he worries all the time about driving with no license. Israel has gone back to Mexico, as I said before, but we haven’t heard if he’s having to do community service right now or not. He has that house we saw his father in that he paid to have built, at least, though. In Magdalena, Margarita, the lady making baskets, passed away a few years ago. And Silvestre, the teenager whose mother we saw killing a chicken, is in college in Oaxaca City. They’re kind of the most middle-class people in Magdalena, owning a successful store on the highway.

KH: How would you like the film to be used?

JW: I’d like the film to be seen by as many people as possible to effect change. We have a community screening campaign going on at We really want people in Mexico to see. We have connections at the Casas del Migrantes, who first told Alex about Magdalena, actually. But it’s much harder to contact grassroots groups there and there are far fewer venues for progressive politics or indie documentaries and no public television.

KH: If people want to see or screen the film, how would they do that?

JW: It’s currently still appearing at film festivals here and there. But they can go to if they want to arrange a screening in their hometown. But to reach us, the filmmakers, directly, they can email us via the film website.

Kali Holloway is a senior writer and the associate editor of media and culture at AlterNet.

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