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INDEPENDENT LENS: The Undocumented

Airs Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Clemencia looks for her husband.

In the loud and contentious debate over immigration, there are voices that will never be heard — those of the more than 2500 border crossers who have perished in the vast wasteland between Sonora, Mexico and Tucson, Arizona in the last fifteen years.

Courtesy of Matt Nager

US/Mexican border fence, Southern Arizona

Courtesy of Matt Nager

Pathologist examines a body found in the desert.

Courtesy of Matt Nager

Migrant bodies waiting for identification.

Courtesy of Matt Nager

Border Patrol agents help an ailing migrant crosser.

Courtesy of Matt Nager

John Doe Cemetery in Holtsville, Calif.

"The Undocumented" tells the story of these migrants who died while trying to cross an unforgiving desert in search of a better life, and follows them on their long journey home, shining a light on an often-forgotten but very human side of the ongoing national conversation about immigration reform.

Directed by Marco Williams ("Two Towns of Jasper," "Banished"), the film will premiere on the award-winning series INDEPENDENT LENS, hosted by Stanley Tucci.

"The Undocumented" is told through the first-person stories of the men and women at the deadly ground zero of the immigration issue. In Arizona, the film follows the heroic efforts of the Pima County medical examiners who work to identify the remains of border crossers.

Says medical examiner Bruce Parks, “We do a full autopsy on everyone who passes away who we suspect is a border crosser. We believe that it’s important to treat people equally and treat them just as we would a U.S. citizen. We have just a few shots to get the most accurate cause of death, to get these people identified, and get them back to their families.”

The medical examiners work closely with the Mexican consulate in Tucson, headed by Jeronimo Garcia. Fielding calls from worried families back in Mexico whose loved ones have gone missing, Garcia sums up their plight: “In search of the American dream, they lose it all in the desert.”

The film also follows Border Patrol Search and Rescue (BORSTAR) agents, who balance law enforcement with lifesaving in the midst of a deadly hot summer, as well as humanitarian workers who search the desert, looking for crossers in need of water, food, and medical aid.

In Chicago, we meet Marcos Hernandez, an undocumented Mexican who came to search for his father Francisco, who disappeared while trying to cross the Sonora Desert. And back in Mexico, the film explores the impact of border deaths on migrant families who explain why their loved ones chose to make the perilous journey.

While everyone featured expresses a wide range of viewpoints regarding the border and illegal immigration, the one thing they are able to agree on is that the migrant deaths must end.

“People are dying — and that should be enough to change things.” - Kat Rodriguez, Derechos Humanos

INDEPENDENT LENS is on Facebook, and you can follow @IndependentLens on Twitter.

Coming to Independent Lens: The Undocumented

Border Patrol agents, Native Americans, smugglers, ranchers, retirees and Samaritans form a constellation of people engaged with the Arizona/Mexico border on a daily basis—policing it, inhabiting it, crossing it, working it, making it safer or simply feeling its consequences. But at the center of it all is the migrants, who sometimes die while trying to cross an unforgiving desert.

A Family Endures the Tragic Side of the Immigration Debate

In this excerpt from the Independent Lens documentary, The Undocumented by acclaimed filmmaker Marco Williams, a young man describes how his grandmother -- a woman named Blanca -- died while accompanying him during his border crossing. Confronting their grief over this terrible loss, her son says "without a doubt, these are very hard times."

Forensics Cannot Explain Why Mother and Daughter Died Alone

In this excerpt from the Independent Lens documentary, The Undocumented by acclaimed filmmaker Marco Williams, a forensics expert examines the remains of a mother and her young daughter, explaining that both perished in the desert while migrating to the U.S. However, no one knows why they were left along in the desert, or which of them died first.

An Organization Reunites Undocumented Dead with Families

In this excerpt from the Independent Lens documentary, The Undocumented by acclaimed filmmaker Marco Williams, a staff member of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos describes how the organization keeps records of missing migrants and their recovered bodies. They try to notify the family members of the deceased so that they may be identified, but each year more and more bodies are found.

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