From Academy Award Nominee Robert Bilheimer
No more “out of sight, out of mind.”
Oh Mercy is a documentary film about thousands of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers from Central America awaiting court dates and immigration hearings in the US—many for well over a year now, with no end in sight. Increasingly desperate and discouraged, they are huddled in squalid camps and detention centers on both sides of the Rio Grande, which for several hundred miles serves as a natural border between Mexico and the United States.
These women, men and children fight hard, every day, to maintain their dignity in the face of powerful forces-- including gang violence, natural disasters, and climate change-- that have displaced them from their homes and turned them into a mobile population of vulnerable human beings who nobody wants. Unable to enter the United States for their legal proceedings because of a policy known as the “Migration Protection Protocols” (MPP), or “Stay In Mexico,” these refugees, migrants and asylum seekers represent a sad and embarrassing chapter in American history. “Asylum is dead,” the journalist Ian Gordon wrote recently, “and the myth of American decency died with it. [Recent policies] have taken a broken system and turned it into a machine of unchecked cruelty.”
At the inspirational center of Oh Mercy one finds Sister Norma Pimentel, of the Catholic Diocese of the Rio Grande Valley, one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
Sister Norma spends several days a week, each and every week, visiting with the people of Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas-- the children, the migrants, the NGO workers, the ICE and CBP officers-- listening to their stories, acknowledging and embracing the reality of their lives, and affirming their humanity. In many ways, Sister Norma is herself a bridge, whose presence in Oh Mercy will serve as a guide for the film’s narrative as a whole. And there are other heroic characters that feature in Oh Mercy as well– from family-oriented, aspirational parents striving for a better life, to countless volunteers, such as Cindy Andrade Johnson, who crosses the Gateway Bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville once a week, her knapsack, and that of her husbands, packed with medicine and health supplies for the camp’s residents.
The purpose of Oh Mercy is to give a face and a voice to the victims of this cruelty, and in so doing affirm their membership in the human family and the fundamental human rights that go with it. The right to be free. The right to be safe. The right to health. The right, as a child, to a wholesome family life and to an education. In this sense, Oh Mercy is ultimately a celebration—of what is possible, and of how courage and compassion can triumph and be sustained in the face of suffering that no human being should have to bear.
People need to see and feel these human beings who are suffering.
We need to make them visible. This is so important.
They need to know we see them.
- Sister Norma Pimentel
Much is at stake, given the involuntary displacement of more than 70 million people in all corners of the earth. At present, thousands of children, women, and men are being forced from their homes every day by armed conflict, violence in many forms, ethnic and religious prejudice, political oppression, poor governance, economic mismanagement, natural disasters, and land, crop and water failures induced by global warming.
These push factors, as they are called, are often interactive and interconnected. Drought induced by climate change, for example, is a push factor for families maintaining small farms in rural Guatemala. When the land fails, these families are forced to leave their homesteads for urban areas or head north towards the United States in search of a means to survive. At this point, they are further exploited by traffickers and others who strip them of what little they have left, including their money, their dignity, and their freedom.
Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas sit across from one another at the southernmost tip of Texas, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Linked by the Gateway International Bridge, which takes only ten minutes to cross on foot, these two cities and their residents in many ways epitomize the challenges and opportunities created by forcibly displaced people on the move—in our hemisphere and around the world.
The refugee camp that was in Matamoros until February, 2021, was a filthy and dangerous place, giving free rein to kidnappers, rapists, extortionists and gangs. Residents of the camp woke up in the morning to find that a child had disappeared, or a dead body was floating among the reeds on the banks of the river. Those that inhabited the camp harbor stories of displacement, fraught journeys, lost loved ones, disoriented children, desperate attempts to reach the US by swimming across the river, and the daily - but also inspiring and heroic - struggle to maintain hope and dignity in the face of uncertainty and despair.
In 2019, the Trump administration implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “remain in Mexico” program, which forced asylum seekers, migrants and refugees seeking entry into the country to await their court dates from the other side of the border. These protocols were responsible for almost two years of inhumane living conditions, countless deaths, recurring deterrence of the migrants, and mental and physical trauma.
In February 2021, the Biden administration put an end to the Migrant Protection Protocols, and more than 25,000 migrants who had been waiting under the MPP policy were now allowed into the United States to await their court dates. However, thousands more, who were not in the MPP program, were - and are - being denied entry. These unaccompanied children and families remain scattered in camps and dangerous cities on the Mexican side, and in the US, jammed into squalid detention centers that are literally bursting at the seams.
In the meanwhile, the US/Mexico border remains closed because of “public health risks” (Title 42) at least until April 21st and realistically, by the Biden administration’s own admission, much longer than that.
The asylum seekers on our southern border fight hard, every day, to maintain their dignity and sanity in the face of powerful forces that have displaced them from their homes and turned them into a mobile population of vulnerable human beings who nobody wants. But with every passing day, the battle against discouragement and despair becomes more difficult. It is a shameful fact of American life today that these helpless, vulnerable people have become pawns in a political battle that has little to do, ultimately, with the suffering that these children, women, and men are enduring.
This is not the promised land to which these asylum seekers have journeyed with so much hope.
Running to Stand Still
A Film Series About Global Forced Migration
Oh Mercy is the first film in Running To Stand Still, a series of documentaries about the global refugee crisis, and its inextricable link to the multi- billion dollar human exploitation industry, and serves as an introductory piece to the series segment on the US/Mexico border crisis. Oh Mercy was released in February 2021 and is currently in wide distribution.
The second film in the series, Heart of the Matter, will address the issues of marginalization, dehumanization, and systematic exclusion, in more depth than Oh Mercy. The film focuses on how family units become fractured—sometimes irreparably—during the forced migration experience, and how the dangers and uncertainties of the migratory journey impacts children, especially. As well as within the children, the hope lies in the tireless determination of thousands of activists, advocates, and volunteers for whom the status quo is unacceptable. We depend on them to show us the humane way forward. Heart of the Matter is on track for release in the fourth quarter of 2021. The third film, Waiting For Home, is about the nearly one million Rohingya now living in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, following their expulsion from Myanmar on August 25, 2017 by the government of Nobel Laureate Aung Soo Kyi.
An underlying focus and concern in all the films in the Running series will be on children, who as always bear the brunt of human rights abuses, from multiple forms of violence, to lives lost to the human trafficking industry, to malnutrition and neglect, to separation from families—all of which have long-lasting impacts on children’s brain development and ability to thrive. In the end, it is the children of Oh Mercy to whom we will have to answer when this chapter of our history as a human family is finally written.
The involuntary displacement of more than 80 million people in all corners of the earth—a number that could increase by at least a third in the next ten years-- is an unfolding tragedy that will, depending on our response, help define what kind of world we share with our fellow human beings in the 21st century, and what kind of global civilization we become.