Hundreds of migrants die in the desert every year, attempting to cross the border into the U.S. after journeying from their homes in Mexico and Central America. Produced with support from our JustFilms program, “Who Is Dayani Cristal?” tells the story of one migrant who found himself in a deadly stretch of desert and whose life is testimony to the need for a more humane U.S. immigration policy.

On Thursday, December 5, the foundation will host a pre-release screening of the film followed by a conversation with it’s director, Marc Silver; Christian Ramirez, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition; and Robin Reineke, executive director of the Colibri Center for Human Rights. Mayra Peters-Quintero, Ford’s senior program officer for Protecting Immigrant and Migrant Rights, will moderate the discussion.

Before the screening, Mayra shared some thoughts about the film and how Ford and our partners are helping to advance sensible immigration reform and secure the rights of a vulnerable population.


What drew you to this film, and how is it important to your work on immigrant and migrant rights?

Mayra Peters-Quintero: “Who is Dayani Cristal?” struck me as having the potential to reach a really broad audience, and to push the conversation about immigration and migration issues forward. It’s artistically phenomenal, which makes it enjoyable to watch, even as the reality it depicts is quite painful. And it connects the dots between U.S. immigration policy and the experiences of real people, to show the conditions that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of migrants each year.

I’d always heard about migrants dying in their journey, but even for me—who has worked on migration for a long time and grew up on the border—I had never seen step by step what that looks like, to really understand what it means to be walking through these passageways where there’s no end in sight. It’s freezing at night, if you stop moving you’ll freeze to death. In the summer it’s scalding hot and you can easily die of dehydration. Through the film, you start to get a real sense of what we’re talking about when we talk about a treacherous journey.


The film traces many of the other hazards that migrants face in their journey to the U.S. Can you tell us about some of them?

In the film, you’ll see Gael Garcia Bernal ride the train north from Honduras—migrants call it “the beast.” There’s a really high incidence of fatality and injury on the train. There has long been a whole industry of smugglers who migrants pay to help them cross the border, and in more recent years that industry has become intertwined with human trafficking, drug smuggling, organized crime. There’s a huge incidence of kidnapping, death, assault, rape—and near total impunity for the perpetrators.

Another danger for migrants is being apprehended and getting caught up in the enforcement system. Today, migrants are prosecuted criminally through the federal courts in these sort of mass processings. They serve federal time, and when they get out they have a felony conviction that guarantees a huge federal sentence if they’re caught a second time. Getting caught is a big risk within a system that we’d argue lacks basic due process protections.

Immigration is in the news constantly, but there’s an absence of discussion around the “push” factors that motivate people to leave their home countries, as opposed to the “pull” factors that attract them to the U.S. This films goes back to the subject’s village to shed light on the factors that drive people to leave: a failing economy, illness and other experiences that motivate people to take risks.


What kind of efforts are you supporting to address these problems?

We support organizations that have been advocating for more humane border enforcement. The immigration bill the Senate approved in October included many favorable provisions, but it also added 20,000 new border agents and $3 billion for drones and technology on the border, all of this at a time of record-low migration and apprehension rates. Increasing border security might seem like a reasonable thing to exchange for broader policy reform, but there are human and financial costs to continuing to pile on more enforcement. And the system being enforced is a broken one.

Most of these organizations are also working on the accountability of customs and border patrol. One that represents law enforcement has been reviewing the customs and border patrol’s use of force policy. As cops themselves, they bring a different kind of credibility to that review than many outside groups, and that’s incredibly helpful.

The organizations we support are working on the issue of family separation, trying to focus the immigration conversation on women and children and families. Over the past five years the number of unaccompanied migrant youth in the U.S. has tripled. And 200,000 parents of U.S. citizen children have been deported since 2010. The psychological trauma for these kids and families can’t be understated. Our grantees are working hard to put this reality squarely at the center of the conversation, and to push for more humane deportation policies.

We’re also supporting faith-based efforts. Religious communities of all different denominations have been really active on immigration, and they bring a moral imperative to these issues. We hope that some of the larger religious networks that are already sensitive to migration will see this and start thinking specifically about border issues and raise the alarm. We need some new voices to ask: Why are so many migrants dying, and why isn’t this seen as a human rights crisis?


The foundation works on immigration and migration from our U.S. office as well as our Mexico and Central America office in Mexico City. Does the film resonate differently in those regions?

On both sides of the border, the issue comes down to family separation: In Mexico and Central America, loved ones have left home to migrate. In the U.S., we have families being separated by force, through deportation. In both regions, we’re really focused on getting our grantees to use the film as part of their advocacy arsenal, to generate discussion and engagement. The film can be a conduit to link up organizations that represent families of missing migrants with U.S.-based groups that are working on migrant rights issues and with deported families.

Apart from the film, we’re working to develop better advocacy infrastructure transnationally, focusing on the rights violations migrants endure in the corridor between Central America, Mexico and the U.S. The film is a really good opportunity for our regional teams to work together. There’s a lot of shared work to be done.

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The Ford Foundation is an independent, nonprofit grant-making organization. For more than 80 years it has worked with courageous people on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. With headquarters in New York, the foundation has offices in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.