They occupy a hazy corner of the American experience. They play a pivotal role in the service economies of Utah’s cities and resort communities. Many risked their lives crossing the border in the Southwest United States to come to America. They are the most recent manifestation of the American Dream – pursuing the opportunity to build a better life for their families. Yet, they also live lives of quiet desperation. As illegal immigrants, they accept low-paying, hard labor jobs to support family members near and far. Because they arrive illegally, they live in the shadows of society, where they are targets of groups seeking to curb immigration and deport undocumented workers.
Ken Verdoia’s major documentary, “Shadow of Hope,” tells their story. The KUED production airs November 30 at 8 p.m. Each of us in the United States is touched by the lives of the estimated eight-to-twelve million undocumented immigrants living in this country, from the restaurants we drive through, to having a fence built on our property to spending a night in a Utah hotel.
Everyday, millions of people in the United States hide in plain sight. In Utah, the population of undocumented immigrants rivals some of the state’s largest cities. “Imagine a city the size of Ogden. Every man, woman and child living with one foot in the mainstream of society, and the other in the quicksand of uncertainty,” says Verdoia. “That is how many undocumented workers live and work in Utah.”
Verdoia and his crew follow them from their home villages in Mexico, through the dangers of clandestine border crossings, to the classrooms, hospitals and workplaces of Utah, listening to a wide range of people discuss what they see as the failings and opportunities of a situation that all agree is currently a failure. KUED interviewed more than 80 people from high level government officials to day workers, police officers, border patrol agents, humanitarian agencies, and even citizens in armed patrols on the international boundary seeking to stem the flow of humanity.
“This is the most challenging domestic issue to confront the American people since the struggle over Civil Rights in the 1950s and 60s,” says Verdoia. “In terms of our national image and sense of purpose, it asks each of us to face a complex human issue and decide what we choose our nation to be.”
In a sense, the central storyline of Shadow of Hope is as old as the nation itself. The most recent immigrants have traditionally taken the lowest paying, unwanted jobs, occupying the lowest economic and social rungs. “What was true in 1900 is true today for the undocumented immigrant” says Verdoia “They are filling jobs that are vacant because of low pay, difficult work, and demanding hours. These are jobs that are seemingly insignificant, but make an economy run. When we talk to employers, they say their businesses depend on a low-cost workforce.”
At the same time, undocumented immigrants know they are here outside of the law. They can be detected and deported at any time. “They’re living in the shadows, fearful of what can happen next,” Verdoia says. “Yet a wave of humanity hits the national border each and every night. People are willing to run the risk of deportation to earn in one day what it takes a week to earn in Mexico.”
The federal government has beefed-up border security and made illegal crossings increasingly dangerous. But more people are crossing the border now than ever before, and many of them are dying in the Arizona desert. Hundreds have their dreams perish each year as a result of dehydration, exposure, accidents and violence.
The first section of the two-hour program, which looks at the process of coming to America, takes viewers to the villages of Mexico, chronicling the conditions that drive people across the border. The immigrants KUED’s team interviewed all begin their journey for economic reasons. “Our romantic notion is that people come to make America their home, become citizens and to be free,” says Verdoia. “But the reality is hundreds of thousands enter the country illegally for the sole purpose to earn money and, eventually, return home.”
The KUED crew covers “the battle of the border,” following people as they make the crossing, talking with vigilante groups who hunt illegal entrants, local law enforcement, the border patrol, and humanitarian groups offering aid to people in the most deadly stretch of the American desert.
The first hour ends with a powerful image in the Tucson, Az. Evergreen Cemetery, where hundreds of those who died in the Sonoran Desert are buried in unnamed graves. “And still, they come,” says Verdoia. “Thousands of new faces will line up at the border every night to make that dash again.”
Hour two explores the challenges, opportunities and practical reality of the role of immigrants in our society, beginning with a historic look at immigration in America and moving to contemporary times. “Our most romantic notion of immigration is engraved in the base of the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus calling immigrants ‘your tired, your poor…the wretched refuse of your teeming shores,’” observes Verdoia. “In a sense, she is referring to immigrants as what other nations consider their overflowing human garbage. Come to America, and you will have a rebirth of opportunity.”
An estimated 8 to 12 million immigrants in the U.S. are here illegally, 70 percent of them from Mexico. They play a critical role not only in the American economy, but in political and economic stability of Mexico. In fact, the Mexican government supports immigration to the U.S. since workers will send $14 billion this year back to struggling family members in Mexico. “To suddenly interrupt that flow would create great instability,” says Verdoia. “So we are talking about global repercussions. At the same time it produces an internal range of issues and dilemmas in terms of how our nation, states and cities deal with immigrants and what services are provided.”
Utah, increasingly considered a haven, has one of the most liberal environments in the nation in terms of providing services to the estimated 75-90,000 undocumented immigrants here. They can get driver’s licenses, their children pay in-state tuition at the state’s colleges, and each year Utah taxpayers pay for millions of dollars in health care. KUED interviews students who are the sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants and visits kindergartens where none in the incoming class speaks English, despite Utah being an “English Only” state. The KUED team also visits worksites throughout the state where the workers are undocumented.
“They’re working, and they’re in demand,” notes Verdoia. “It’s easy for these workers to get jobs here and we show how easy it is. Business depends upon the low-cost labor.” As part of the program, Verdoia demonstrates the relative ease in obtaining forged identity papers that allow an undocumented immigrant to quickly enter the work force.
“Do they have the right to work here? And, if we accept them as workers, do we owe them something else? Do they have the right to medical care? Do their kids have the right to go to school? Do they have the right to feel as secure as an American citizen? These are the hard questions that our society must face,” says Verdoia. “These are the issues we reveal in the film. What do we choose to be as a nation? What can we afford in the way of services and what can we afford to turn away from?”
In the absence of clear and consistent federal policies, cities, towns and states are left to their own devices. “The lingering aftertaste is hypocrisy,” he observes. “We spend billions on border security and patrol, but virtually nothing on cracking down on employers once they’re here. Talk to anyone with experience in the subject and they will tell you that the dangers faced on the border by an undocumented immigrant pale in comparison to the attraction of the ‘help wanted’ sign that is always on display.”
The complexity of the issues, the decisions that must be faced, and the very humanity that is at stake in this issue are powerful reminders that until a more certain path is selected we all will live a portion of our lives in the shadow of hope.