The XX Factor

Alone, Illegal, Nine.

There’s a moment in Which Way Home , a documentary airing tonight on HBO, in which someone tells a group of Central American men that 20 percent of them will die on their way into Arizona. “Who wants to go to the United States?” he shouts after imparting this factoid. Every man cheers. It seems that no traveler considers himself part of that unlucky minority.

Which Way Home is about the children who start this journey alone, atop freight trains, prey to rapists, robbers, and gruesome accidents involving tracks and limbs. There’s a 9-year-old girl named Olga who hopes to find her mother in Minnesota, and a 13-year old named Kevin who wants to earn some money so his mom can buy a house in Honduras. Olga wants to play in the snow; Kevin wants to see the big city. The filmmaker, Rebecca Cammisa, says she made the film to warn Central American parents of the dangers awaiting their kids on the way North . But horrific as the journey is, the film is perhaps less a work about the stupidity or negligence of Central American parents than about the risks people knowingly accept when the only alternative is hunger and boredom in the Guatemalan countryside. If we can’t imagine letting a 13-year-old risk death in the desert on the way to Laredo, maybe we just lack the imaginative capacity to conceive of raising kids in a country far less prosperous than Mexico.

When I give talks about immigration, I point out that Australia and Canada absorb more immigrants per capita than we do. One response I get is that those countries accept educated foreigners through a point system; immigrants to the United States, documented and undocumented, tend to be poorer and less credentialed. This is true. But you can’t watch this film and deny that some intensely brutal selection process is at work. Average people cannot survive 900 miles on top a speeding train, trek across a burning desert, and slink past half a dozen militarized immigration checkpoints.

Photograph of a young immigrant with a photograph of friends who are in the midst of a deportation hearing by Scott Olson/Getty Images.