Kids Hop Trains To Border In 'Which Way Home'

Kevin and Fito i i

Kevin, 13, and Fito, 14, are both from Honduras. They hope to find work in the U.S. Click the image to watch the trailer for Which Way Home. Rebecca Cammisa hide caption

itoggle caption Rebecca Cammisa
Kevin and Fito

Kevin, 13, and Fito, 14, are both from Honduras. They hope to find work in the U.S. Click the image to watch the trailer for Which Way Home.

Rebecca Cammisa

Rebecca Cammisa has been nominated for an Academy Award for her film, Which Way Home. The documentary follows Central American migrants on a dangerous journey, on the top of a freight train called "The Beast," through Mexico to the U.S. border.

Cammisa tracked the stories of a number of unaccompanied child migrants on their journey. She met most of her subjects in immigrant detention centers, by the railroad tracks, and at other locations where migrants gathered.

She told host Neal Conan of the danger the children faced, traveling on "The Beast." "Along the journey," Cammisa remembered, "these boys started to witness things that made them realize how really dangerous this was, that it wasn't a joke."

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U: "Which Way Home," which follows migrant children from their homes in Central America and Mexico who try to make their way to the United States on their own, kids as young as nine years old who face the hazards atop freight trains they call the Beast, and more risks if they make it as far as the border. Andrew Adosmay(ph) is an agent with the United States Border Patrol.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHICH WAY HOME")

ANDREW ADOSMAY: You know, I have personally seen dead children in the desert. And in 99 percent of the cases, they were abandoned. Here's a six-year-old kid, doesn't know anything about life. His parents make that decision to bring him to United States, place them on the hands of some person they don't even know, some person that will get drunk, use drugs, smuggles dope, and that's the person that they give their kid to. They shouldn't be surprised if their kid never makes it.

: Andrew Adosmay of the United States Border Patrol. If you have a question for Rebecca Cammisa about her film, "Which Way Home," or about the documentary film business, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Rebecca Cammisa joins us from our bureau in New York. And congratulations on the nomination.

REBECCA CAMMISA: Thank you.

: And tell us a little bit about the origins of this movie. Why did you decide to follow migrant children from, well, the south of Mexico at 1,500 miles to the U.S. border?

CAMMISA: Well, I'm a bit of news junkie, and I listen the news and watched these kinds of shows. And every time the immigration debate was brought up or discussion was about migrants, there was always this number-crunching statistics and rather a vitriolic language. And one thing that bothered me is I could never really get information about what was really going on down there, some sort of in-depth reporting.

And after complaining about it, I thought, you know what? Why don't you - you're a filmmaker. Why don't you go and do something about it? So I started looking into what the subject really was about, what was going on down in Mexico, and decided to try and make a film about it.

: Five percent of the migrants who come north, you say, are children. You focus on them.

CAMMISA: Yes. We were told by a train company executive in Mexico that what they were seeing was at least 5 percent of those jumping on their freight trains were children.

: And they ride between the cars, hanging on the ladders, but most atop the freight trains. And even as we're watching the shots from your cameras, this looks like incredibly dangerous.

CAMMISA: Yes, it's - it is. I mean, there are, you know, countless stories of people being thrown off trains or falling under the wheels. They're either decapitated or cut in half or they lose limbs. And then they're stuck in a country they're not from, and then who takes cares of them? And this - you know, those on this journey aren't just adults. Imagine young children travelling alone doing that.

: And there's this alternate - they have that children-like bravado, oh-I'm-not-scared. At the same time, there's one moment in the film where they describe two people who were hit as they sit up and the train went into a tunnel, and you can see the shock on their faces.

CAMMISA: Yes. Well, you know, these are children doing this. So, many times, children aren't necessarily thinking of the circumstances, or they think they can make it and nothing will happen to them. And that's not just the case. There are two children that are actually in our film who - one of them is - comes back in the coffin. So children die on the road trying to get to the United States, whether they're trying to go through the desert or otherwise. And yes, I think along the journey, these boys started to witness things that made them realize how really dangerous this was, that it wasn't a joke.

: And they have various frustrations and difficulties along the way. The two kids you follow most are boys named Kevin and Fito, his friend. They're both from the same village. And eventually, they get separated, but both eventually returned home saying, well, it wasn't worth it. It was a terrible thing to do. Nine months later, they try again.

CAMMISA: Well, Fito, while on the road, was tired, hungry and ran out of money and just wanted to go back to Honduras. So he was deported back. But Kevin continued on by himself. And once he made it, you know, he speaks very eloquently about him witnessing a gang rape while he's in a freight car, watching this happen. And he says, yeah, I don't know what made me decide to not do this, but something told me I'm a child and I'm not going to risk my life out there by myself, you know? I would rather go back to my own country and suffer.

And through this process of seeing what that real suffering is for migrants on the road, he came to this realization and actually stopped himself, didn't cross into the desert and ended up turning himself into U.S. Border Patrol.

: And spending a lot of time - months, in fact - in a shelter where he feels like he's in a prison - and, though, eventually returned home. And yet, again, you see the terrible situation in their village for them. There's nothing for them there.

CAMMISA: Right. I mean, there's no secret why people leave and what their dreams and hopes are in trying to get to United States. Once we were able to go back - when Kevin was being deported, we went back to his village with him and we saw firsthand, you know, what their lives are. And that really, you know, gives you an understanding in the film for why some children leave. Some children leave to try and find their parents, who they've been separated from for years, while others are just trying to help save their families or try and find a different life elsewhere.

: Rebecca Cammisa, the director of "Which Way Home," nominated for an Academy Award, with us from our bureau in New York. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Willa(ph) is on the line with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

WILLA: Hi. My question was - I heard the soundbite earlier from the Border Patrol officer, who was saying that these parents put their - the lives of their children in these people's hands that they don't know. And my question was is there something about, right now, that's going on in these countries that is putting these children in imminent danger? Or if this has been going on for a long time? What exactly are these children being sent for?

CAMMISA: Well, I mean, this has been going on for quite a while. You know, in some countries there's just no work. There are environmental factors such hurricanes that destroy people's livelihood. They lose their land. They lose their crops. So they're put in positions where they're poverty-stricken, and then they decide to leave. And some parents leave and go away. And because they're afraid they cannot cross the border, they stay put in the United States and their children grow up without them.

So the way that - since people aren't - do not have legal status, one alternative they decide on is to try and bring their children to them so they can be reunited. On the other hand, there are some children that just are in homes where it's quite difficult for them and they know that the United States - or they've heard the United States as this great place to be, and they just want to go off on their own and, you know, achieve their dreams.

So there are many reasons why children are coming. And some of them just decide to do this on their own. But I would - it's fair to say that economic circumstances is a big reason why people either feel forced to try and bring their children, or children try to come by themselves.

: Thank you, Willa.

WILLA: Thank you.

: Bye-bye. Let's go next - this is Paul, Paul with us from Nashville.

PAUL: Hi.

: Hi.

PAUL: I've seen the film three times. I'm a huge fan. I had a couple of questions. One question I'm sure you get a lot is, like, the follow-up on the children today and whatever became of the two kids in the middle of the film that they met at that stop that were travelling alone.

: The two little kids, the nine-year-olds?

PAUL: Right, right. And the other question was: Did you get any pushback from the governments of these different countries who may have thought that your film was shedding their country in a negative light?

CAMMISA: Well, to answer - I'll try and get to all your questions. I think you're interested in knowing about what happened to Kevin and Fito.

: No, he's talking about Olga and...

CAMMISA: Oh, Olga and Freddy.

: Yes.

CAMMISA: Okay. I'm sorry. Yes, the two nine-year-old children that are in the Coatzacoalcos shelter. Freddy and Olga were in the company of family members, but also smugglers. And we had to be extremely careful about how to handle or be in that situation. The children wanted to talk us. We were able to talk to them, but we really had to be careful because of who they were in the company of.

Because they were with smugglers and these people were really very not trusting of us, when those children leave and you see them go away on the tracks, that's the last time we saw them. We were not able to follow them, and we have no idea what happened to them, I'm sorry to say.

: And pushback from the governments?

CAMMISA: Mm-hmm. No. I think, you know, we - I think there are people who are afraid to have some light shed on things. But, you know, we got a lot of support. The reason why we're able to go into detention centers is because Mexican immigration allowed us to do so. So I think there are quite a number of people who work in Mexican immigration who know this is a huge problem and were hoping that our film would shed light in it so some kind of, you know, reform or some kind of bill can alleviate the situation. So we had a lot of support, actually.

: And we also do see Kevin in his shelter in Houston, I think. And so, obviously, you had permission there, too.

CAMMISA: Yes, exactly. We were very lucky. We have received a lot of support. You know, sometimes we had support taken away, but I can't complain. We had a lot of, you know, access and permission granted.

: Paul, thanks very much.

PAUL: Thanks, Neal. Great show.

: Thank you. And I wonder - the needs here, as you saw them, as you documented, are bottomless. Nevertheless, I wonder, do you have any concern that once you start following the stories of children who are going to become the subjects of your documentary film, did you feel any ethical pull to say, we have to make sure these children are fed, that they're safe, that they're taken care of? Or did you say, wait a minute, we're just journalists following their story?

CAMMISA: Oh, no. There's constant, you know, ethics and dilemmas and things you question along the road. I mean, children are our subjects, so our thought was also their safety first. Because - I mean, and we had asked and did research about how we could behave in the field. And, you know, we were told very explicitly, you cannot transport them. You cannot pay for them. You cannot feed them. You cannot help them along this journey, because that's what you're doing. You're just giving them an incentive and a free ride to go.

So legally, you're not able to do that. And we understood that, and the children also that worked and participated with us understood that. But at the same time, you know, all along the train route, every time we're around children, and we thought if they were in a dangerous situation or going into a potential one, we would always tell them about the risks, warn them about things and say to them, listen, if you decide you don't want to go, just let us know and we will help you get home.

: Right.

CAMMISA: So we were always making them aware of that. Also, as we met subjects, we immediately wanted to talk with their family members and parents to get permission, so that their families knew that we were wanting to this and if it was okay for them that we were filming their children.

: Rebecca Cammisa, director of "Which Way Home," nominated - one of five films nominated for this year's best documentary feature. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email that we have from Francis in Sonoma County: Is the director familiar with the book "The Tunnel Kids," which chronicled the lives of children who led migrants in the tunnels between Mexico and Arizona? Please thank her for bringing this troubling issue to the screen. It's sobering, very important as we discuss the immigration problem without understanding the motives and challenges of immigrants.

CAMMISA: Actually, I know of "The Tunnel Kids," and in my research I've read about them. But I don't know that book. So I'd love to get the title and the name of the author, and I'd love to read it.

: Okay. Well, "The Tunnel Kids," I don't know the name of the author but we'll try to get that for you.

CAMMISA: That would be great. Thank you.

: There was also a film on this very subject of the kids who ride the freight trains through Mexico, "Sin Nombre," a fictionalized account. Have you seen that?

CAMMISA: I haven't seen it yet. Oh.

: Okay.

CAMMISA: Actually, during the time we were editing "Which Way Home," you know, "Sin Nombre" had come out. We were still doing finishing touches. And I didn't want to see it, because, you know, when you're making a film you don't want to be influenced by other films visually. And since then, I've just been really busy and I have to really take a look at it. I really want to see it.

: Let's go next to Mel, Mel with us from Barrington in Rhode Island.

MEL: Hi, Rebecca.

CAMMISA: Hello.

MEL: Congratulations on your film. I haven't seen it, but I'm very familiar with "Enrique's Journey," and that book. I've done a lot of work in Honduras, particularly with other countries in Central America, with particularly two different organizations that are kind of indirectly trying to keep people in Central America. We're never going to change the lure of the United States for people down there. But one's a school where we're teaching English, and one is a sustainable agriculture training program.

But I'm wondering if you, in your travels there, have found what kinds of programs do kids that - like, the kids who didn't come up here on the train, and you - if you've ever talk with them, like, what keeps them there? What kinds of programs or opportunities are our kids latching onto? Is it both parents are still living there? Is it school? Is it economic opportunity? Why do people stay, and how can we create more opportunities for more kids to be more excited to stay in their home countries?

CAMMISA: Oh, that's a really great question. It's funny, because I just spoke with Kevin yesterday, and I had heard that there was a woman who is trying to, you know - at one point I - let me just backtrack a little bit. About a week or two ago, I had heard that Kevin was going to try again to leave Honduras. And at the same time, I heard about a woman who is trying to talk to him into getting into a trade. And now he just spoke to me yesterday, and he wants to be able to afford to learn a trade in fixing cell phones.

So I think if children have not only - you know, some children like Kevin, their schooled, but, you know, if he's a bit of a wild child, he may not, you know, want to sit in the classroom all day. So it seems like he's very interested in this trade or leaning a skill that he can immediately work. Because for him, he wants to save his family. He wants to help his mother. He's not thinking about, you know, math and writing and all that. He's thinking about survival, as a lot of children are.

MEL: Yup.

CAMMISA: So I think developing, you know, education for skills or trade...

MEL: Yeah.

CAMMISA: ...you know, would help them a lot. But, you know, most of the families or most of the people we met, their families are fragmented.

MEL: Yup.

CAMMISA: You know, when some of the family leaves and is in the United States and doesn't come back, the rest of the family is left wherever they are. And they do get remittances. They do get money back from family, but they still are fragmented. They still feel so cutoff. Little Olga - I mean, you see her, you know, if you see the film, she's saying, I want to be with my mothers and sisters. And it's just so upsetting for her to know that her - they're away from her.

: Hmm.

MEL: Yes.

CAMMISA: So quite frankly, I think there can be programs and things that help children, but the need to be with their loved ones or to go find a better life is so strong.

: Another...

CAMMISA: So I don't think - you know, I'd like to wave a magic wand a have a great answer for you. I just don't.

MEL: Well, your answer about the trade - learning trades is important. I think what we were thinking at the school was at least if they knew English, they could maybe get into the tourist trade.

: Hmm.

CAMMISA: Also, you know, if I can kind of interrupt and just add another thing. One of other kids, Eureko(ph), I know the last thing I heard is that he's sleeping under a bridge and he's still dealing with the drug issue. And we were down in Tapachula for a little while, and we noticed there was this one small place that was trying to help kids get off of, you know, sniffing glue.

And we went into this rehab, and it was an absolutely desolate, almost like a deconstructed, you know, hovel. And I thought to my self, why isn't there money or some sort of place that's clean and protected, where children who may be are street kids or want to get off the drug or trying to get help could go to a safe place? And there didn't seem to be any. So maybe on the flip side, other children who have been lured into the streets or have that problem, maybe there could be some sort of money or time spent into helping children with those drug issues.

: Rebecca Cammisa, good luck. Congratulations on the nomination, and we'll look for your film on Oscar night.

CAMMISA: Thank you very much, Neal.

: Her movie is "Which Way Home." And you can hear our other interviews with nominees for the documentary Oscar at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Joe Palca will join us as the talk turns to grisly bears and why they're invading polar bear turf in Canada.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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