Frey wins the June Sidney Award for his coverage of migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border
John Carlos Frey and PBS Need to Know team (producer Brian Epstein, correspondent John Larson and editor Judith Starr Wolff) won the June Sidney Award for “Crossing the Line: Dying to Get Back,” a documentary about how U.S. immigration policies are killing increasing numbers of undocumented migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The documentary aired on PBS’ “Need to Know” and was produced with the support of the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute; it is the third in a three-part series on the Border Patrol.
The bleached bones of unnamed migrants are piling up in small town morgues along the border, even though unauthorized crossings are at a historic low. Over two thousand migrant deaths were reported between 1999 and 2012, and the true death toll may be even higher.
Crossings have become more dangerous because the U.S. Border Patrol has deliberately pushed cross-border traffic into inhospitable terrain where migrants risk death from heat stroke and exploitation by human traffickers.
The Obama administration’s aggressive deportation policy is driving risky border crossings. Nearly two million undocumented workers have been deported in the last five years. Many of these deportees have lived in the U.S. for years. Some are the parents of U.S. citizens. Many are risking their lives to return to the United States and reunite with their families.
Alfonso Martinez Sanchez, a father of five U.S.-born children, was deported after 20 years in the United States. He died of heat stroke attempting to re-cross the border into a remote Indian reservation. Martinez’s friend alleges that U.S. Border Patrol agents left Martinez to die, even though he told them where to find him.
“The Obama administration has been under intense and mounting pressure from Republicans in Congress to increase border enforcement in exchange for immigration law reform,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein. “This kind of reporting is vital as the U.S. Senate this week debates a path to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers.”
John Carlos Frey is a freelance investigative reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His investigative work has been featured on the “60 Minutes” episode, “The All American Canal;” this three-part series for PBS entitled “Crossing the Line;” and several episodes of “Dan Rather Reports.” In 2011, Frey documented the journey of Mexican migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border and walked for days in the Arizona desert risking his own life for the documentary “Life and Death on the Border.” He has also written articles for the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, Salon, Need to Know online, the Washington Monthly, The Guardian and El Diario.
- Why have border-crossing deaths increased even as the number of illegal crossings has declined?
In 2007, the Bush administration began fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border resulting in over 600 miles of new border barriers as well as 8,000 more Border Patrol agents. This increased border security infrastructure forced migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border to find alternative routes. Instead of a one or two day trip across the border, migrants were now walking for five or six days. This changing of migration routes through treacherous terrain was part of a larger U.S. strategy to deter illegal immigration. As border security tightened, the likelihood of dying escalated.
- In earlier years, those who died crossing the border were likely to be in their twenties, but today the average victim is older. Why is that?
The Obama administration has ramped up interior enforcement of immigration laws. They have deported nearly two million undocumented immigrants, many with strong ties and family members in the U.S. These deportees are desperate to reunite with their families. What used to be young able-bodied migrants crossing the border in search of a job have been replaced by people who have been living in the U.S. for years trying to get back to their families, hence we now see older people attempting to cross the border.
- Some of the research for this episode was carried out by journalism students in New York. Describe what they did and how you ended up working with them.
The phenomenon of migrant death is difficult to quantify and study. Many different organizations along the U.S.-Mexico border deal with the processing of those who have perished. There is no central database and no comprehensive look at migrant death border-wide. We solicited the journalism students to contact agencies, morgues, coroners and humanitarians to compile as much data as possible. We wanted to look at the issue of migrant death from a border-wide perspective — not just deaths in one state or one region. The students were able to determine the fact that the incident of death was increasing and the age of the individuals was also increasing.
- Has Border Patrol been investigated for its handling of the Alfonso Martinez Sanchez case?
If the Border Patrol has been investigated or is currently being investigated, the public is not privy. Internal documents are next to impossible to obtain. A reporter can’t even get documents that pertain to training or standard protocol when it comes to interior investigations or procedure. In addition, the U.S. Border Patrol is investigated by itself without any responsibility of oversight, transparency or accountability.
- Martinez said he felt pressured to waive his right to an immigration hearing before being deported to Mexico. Is this a common tactic?
On June 4, 2013 the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for the systemic practice of coercing migrants to waive their legal rights to remedies other than deportation.
- Crossing is the latest in a three-part series. Can you say a bit about the series as a whole?
“Crossing the Line” was a three-part series taking an in-depth look at what it means to “secure the border.” As comprehensive immigration reform legislation progresses in Congress, increased border security appears to be the deciding factor whether or not the proposed legislation will become law. Since 9/11 the U.S. has employed a militaristic approach to dealing with illegal immigration. We wanted to take a look at what effect this ramping up of border guards and infrastructure has had on the migrants trying to cross, on the people who call the border region their home and whether or not it was actually effective. What we found was a U.S. border security system that is poorly managed, questionably effective and in violation of many long-standing national and international laws.