HBO documentary examines U.S.-Mexico border fence

After receiving a call from her friend, a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville, informing her that the fence meant to protect the United States from terrorism, smuggling and illegal immigration was about to be built through the middle of campus, Rory Kennedy was intrigued.

He told her how the fence was actually being built north of the natural border of the Rio Grande River, cutting through houses, backyards, and farms, creating a no man’s land of American soil between the fence and the river.

Kennedy began doing her own research and what she uncovered highlights what an “irresponsible investment” the Bush administration made when it passed the Secure Fence Act of 2006. “The more I learned, the more absurd it became, and also more tragic,” said Kennedy. This drove her to create a film to hold our legislators accountable for the $3.1 billion in taxpayer dollars they spent on an ineffective border wall.

Kennedy, the youngest daughter of U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy and co-founder of Moxie Firecracker Films, served as writer, director, producer, and narrator of The Fence (La Barda), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Kennedy, along with co-producer Keven McAlester, attended the Texas premiere of the 36-minute documentary at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum at the University of Texas at Austin.

The film is a darkly comical look at the impact of the controversial border fence, in the vain of Catch-22, which the producers admit to reading during the creation of the movie.

The documentary shows where the fence starts, and stops, and starts and stops again and again. It is 670 miles of fence to cover the 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. As a matter of fact, in one spot along the border between Mexico and New Mexico, the fence was built six feet into Mexican territory and had to be dismantled and rebuilt on the proper border line.

The producers met with coyotes, who help smuggle people across the border illegally. They admitted that the fence is just another obstacle, not a deterrent, and point out drainage tunnels and underground passages dug that morning. Border patrol agents shared footage of people not just climbing, but also driving, over the fence.

Producers also spent time with the Minuteman Project, a self-described ‘citizens’ Neighborhood Watch on our border’ that spearheaded the building of the fence. They walk around armed with guns following footprints to track down anyone who has crossed the border. Without emotion, they talk about the hundreds of people who die attempting to cross the border each year, a number which has doubled since before the fence was put up.

Expecting to find a large community of fence supporters along the border, Kennedy was surprised to find that most of the people there actually opposed it. These people are able to see firsthand how ineffective the border wall is in curbing illegal immigration and the destruction it is causing to the environment. 36 federal laws had to be waived to have the fence built in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Texas.

“It’s not criminals coming over, but people who want to contribute. We rely as an economy on these people,” said Kennedy during the question and answer session following the screening. She admits that she is passionate about issues around immigration. Her family stems from Irish immigrants and has served the U.S. in many ways, including the country’s highest office.

Professor, historian, bestselling author, and the friend who called Kennedy about the border wall, Douglas Brinkley, served as the discussion moderator. He pointed out that the Kennedy family has a strong history with the Mexican-American community.
Kennedy’s own father, RFK, had worked with Chicano civil rights leader Dolores Huerta and supported César Chávez “in the struggle for justice for the farm worker and in the struggle for justice for Spanish-speaking Americans.” Her uncle, John F. Kennedy, settled the 1895 U.S.-Mexico border dispute, “El Chamizal”, creating friendly relations with our neighbors to the south.

The film refers to the fence as un-American and includes sound bites from the Berlin Wall from former presidents JFK (“We never had to put a wall up”) and Ronald Regan (“Tear down the wall Mr. Gorbachev”).

McAlester said that the fence has become “a monument to our lack of immigration policy and the losing drug war.” Both producers agree that the federal government needs to address the issue of a comprehensive immigration policy.

The free public screening and discussion at the LBJ Library was presented by HBO Documentary Films, Austin Film Festival, and The Texas Observer.

The HBO debut of The Fence (La Barda) is 8 p.m. EST Thursday, Sept. 16, which is coincidentally Mexican Independence Day.

Vicky Garza

Writer - Vicky Garza, a native Austinite, is a freelance journalist who uses her mighty pen for the power of good. She has a degree in marketing with a minor in music and entertainment business from the University of Miami, where she hosted her own morning show and '80s retro lunch on an alternative radio station. She graduated from St. Edward's University with a master's in international business and loves to travel. She has visited over 91 cities in 18 countries and has lived in Texas, California, Florida, Hawaii, and across the pond in London.

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