What happens to the women left behind by husbands and sons who leave to work arduously and illegally in the United States?
Director Heather Courtney set out to answer the question using video letters exchanged between people living on separate sides of the border. The result was her documentary, "Letters from the Other Side," which airs on U.S. public television stations this month.
"These video letters illustrate the true tragedy of our immigration policy," she said.
Part of the documentary details the circumstances of Eugenia Gonzalez, whose husband left for the U.S., eventually lost contact and stopped sending money. Her sons also have left to look for work. She and her two daughters remain behind, trying to get by selling cactus products in local markets.
In one scene, tears well in one son's eyes as the soft-spoken Gonzalez tells him in Spanish: "I love you very much and send you a hug ... and we really feel your absence."
It was while making a documentary about illegal immigrants in Texas called "Los Trabajadores/The Workers," that Courtney thought about telling a story from the women's perspective.
Two years later, Courtney left in her 1989 Volvo station wagon for the Mexican state of Guanajuato with a Fulbright Fellowship and a video camera.
"I wasn't setting out to make an advocate piece or political piece," she said.
What she found were families who drifted apart just to survive economically, Courtney said.
Among them are Carmela Rico and Laura Amanza Cruz, who lost their husbands in 2003 during the nation's deadliest smuggling incident.
"The morning he left, he told me that he was only going for a year. Then he just hugged and kissed me and the children and left. And I never heard from him again," Rico said, her eyes partially closed.
The men were among more than 70 immigrants crammed inside a stifling trailer that was later abandoned in Victoria, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Houston. Nineteen died.
The idea for the video letters surfaced after one woman asked Courtney if she would show her footage to her sons in the U.S.
"Normally, I would not be an active participant," Courtney said during a telephone interview from Austin. But she was struck by the fact that a mother couldn't visit grown children living across the border.
While trade policies allow products and services to flow across borders, immigration rules prevent people from doing the same, Courtney said.
One example is the story of Maria Yanez, a subsistence farmer who embroiders pillows and sells them to tourists to earn extra money.
After the film was completed, Yanez' son Angel was severely beaten and robbed by bandits on the Mexican side of the border. He was returning to the U.S. last month after visiting his family for the first time in several years. Despite his injuries, he kept walking toward the border with other migrants. When he could go no farther, he was left behind and died.
"It shows that things have to change," Courtney said. "There's no reason a son shouldn't be able to go visit his mother and have to pay with his life."
"Letters from the Other Side" is a co-production of Front Porch Films and KERA-Dallas/Fort Worth with the Independent Television Service.
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