Film Spotlights Immigration Policy

General view of signage for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival on Main Street January 18, 2006 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
After a boisterous 2004 convention aimed at rallying support for an Arizona proposition to combat voter fraud among undocumented immigrants, a Mexico native wheels a cart into the hotel ballroom to clean up.

In meek, broken English he says he has no problem with the people expressing their views, but when they talk about kicking sick immigrant children out of hospitals it bothers him.

Such is the dilemma presented in Joseph Mathew's documentary, "Crossing Arizona," which examines both sides of the immigration debate in Arizona with an eye toward showing the failings of U.S. immigration policy. The film is in the documentary competition of the Sundance Film Festival, which runs through Sunday.

Mathew, a former photojournalist who was an occasional freelance photographer for The Associated Press in Baltimore several years ago, said he was drawn to the issue after hearing about the humanitarian crisis Arizona was facing as it became a major immigration thoroughfare in the mid-1990s.

Two immigration policies Operation Hold the Line in 1993 and Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 heightened security near the urban centers of El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, respectively. That, the film shows, left illegal immigrants with only one option, traveling for days through one of the most unforgiving environments on the continent, the Southwest's Sonoran Desert. It is estimated that 4,500 undocumented people try to cross the desert each day. The U.S. Border Patrol tallied a record 253 immigrant deaths in 2005 in Arizona.

It is in that harsh landscape that Mathew found the groups of people who embody the immigration dilemma. They are both the humanitarian organizations that fill water tanks hoping to save lives and the members of the burgeoning "Minuteman" movement made up of citizens taking the fight against illegal immigration into their own hands.

"The initial focus was trying to cover the humanitarian crisis in Arizona," Mathew said. But as he watched the voter-fraud ballot measure, Proposition 200, heat up in the state and saw vigilante border-watcher Chris Simcox's group gain national attention, the political debate became an integral part of the story, he said.

"When we first met Chris Simcox he was really nobody," Mathew said. "Suddenly he's on CNN with Lou Dobbs. It was this incredible story happening right before our eyes. This thing we were covering locally became a huge national story."