In the first few minutes of the new documentary Missing in Brooks County, Eddie Canales idles his truck along a long stretch of trees, brush, and barbed wire. A few steps away a plastic barrel marked “Agua” sits under a tattered Red Cross flag where Canales retrieves a few empty water jugs and replaces them with full ones. Here in Brooks County, a rural Texas community located near the U.S.-Mexico border, summertime temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees. A person could easily die of thirst out here, and as Canales drives his truck down the road he halts when he sees buzzards nearby. “Whoa,” he says, watching the birds as they circle. “They’re here.”
A grizzled, aging man, Canales gingerly climbs over barbed wire and hacks through tall grass to discover what the buzzards have already found. A migrant is lying on the ground, dead. The man faces the sky, his arms outstretched, his chest swollen.
Hundreds die traversing this sweltering landscape every summer to evade the state’s largest border patrol checkpoint in nearby Falfurrias. There is no infrastructure to help them: Canales is the one-man engine behind the tiny South Texas Human Rights Center, providing humanitarian help where it can in Brooks County. Yet this unnamed soul is one of thousands of missing migrants whose families will never know what happened to them.
Missing in Brooks County, a documentary by Connecticut-based filmmakers Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss screening periodically across Texas and currently streaming on Laemmle Virtual Cinema, zooms in on this immense issue in one particularly dangerous area: Brooks County, population 7,100, where more than 2,000 migrants are presumed to have died since 2008. An estimated four in five of them will never be found. Texas leads all U.S. states in migrant deaths, having now surpassed Arizona for the dubious distinction. This film follows the helpers, who have been clouded by controversies in other parts of the Southwest: In 2019, humanitarian volunteers outside Tucson were charged with felonies for providing water and shelter to two young men walking through the Sonoran Desert. Here, volunteers have avoided legal harassment, but are instead entirely invisible.
The film takes shape as a portrait of the few human beings who carry countless spirits on their shoulders, who take the dead under their wing. Canales is one of them, and when family members come to his humble office to ask for help, he sifts through binders of crime scene photographs. It is traumatizing, thankless work, but he keeps on, often sleeping on a cot in the office.
If a migrant is walking through the brush in Brooks County, they have already made it across the border in McAllen. Coyotes bring people north and, upon reaching the Brooks County seat of Falfurrias 70 miles from the border, face the largest border patrol checkpoint in Texas. The only way to circumvent the checkpoint is to hike 40 miles around it. The filmmakers excoriate both federal and state officials for the humanitarian crisis that has resulted. It is clear to the filmmakers that federal policies of deterrence, dating back to 1994 under the Clinton Administration, are to blame for the forging of these dangerous paths and the subsequent surge in deaths. Yet they also indict Texas’ systems, or lack thereof, for failing to keep track of migrant deaths in any meaningful way.
Another of the movie’s main characters is anthropologist Kate Spradley, who leads a Texas State University project to exhume unmarked graves, conduct DNA testing, and reconnect the mourning families of missing migrants to their loved ones’ remains. We watch how Canales stays calm and keeps his head down in the work to cope, but Spradley’s response is one of building anger. She calls him about yet another funeral home that told her that, inundated with bodies, they just started burying people everywhere with no records. “These are people, these aren’t receipts you lose track of,” she vents.
The filmmakers do an expert job of humanizing Spradley and Canales, but they could have spent more time with the migrants’ grieving families. They follow the families of Homero Román Gómez and Juan Maceda Salazar, shedding light on their stories, but they don’t get quite as much screen time or exploration. Even so, Missing in Brooks County lingers with a quiet care on human moments. Four years of footage has been distilled into a thrumming, tense hour and twenty minutes, a collection of scenes that illuminate fleeting traces of pain and memory. Often, these scenes are mundane: we see Román Gómez’s brother and sister sit in a plain hotel room, waiting on the phone, transferred again and again to county offices that will lead them nowhere; we watch research students gently and silently handle the bones of migrants dug from unmarked graves. We learn that grave diggers and the folks who mow the cemetery lawn are frequently the only people who remember where the “unidentifieds” were buried. In one striking shot, Spradley shows us a room filled with small, cardboard boxes, so many that the camera’s frame can’t capture them all. “There is a person inside every one of these boxes. Everybody in here has a family that wonders what happened to them.”
Viewers also see local residents and officials who appear to view migrants as less than human. A Border Patrol agent says he doesn’t call the migrants “people” anymore; he calls them “bodies.” Ranchers, some of whom staunchly refuse Canales’ requests to set out water on their land, say shocking things on camera. “I’ve got my suspicions about Eddie Canales,” says one. “We’re just waiting to try to catch him loading some [people] up and sneaking them around the checkpoint.” He laughs at a Border Patrol photo in which three migrants hide in a tree from guard dogs. Another rancher, a veterinarian by day, eventually invites the filmmakers on a vigilante stakeout that he organizes with other elderly white men who are concerned about immigrants bringing “sleeper cells” and “cartel soldiers” to “overtake us internally.” He sits through the dead of night, wearing night vision goggles and full camo hunting gear, hoping to apprehend people he considers to be dangerous criminals.
Even in these bizarre, hostility-tinged moments, the film’s tone remains solemn. The ranches of Brooks County are haunted. By the movie’s conclusion, however, there’s still hope to be found. Kind people of faith in Falfurrias often pull over to wish the searching families well. Crosses and angel statues stand among flowers in the cemeteries. “God bless you” is a common refrain, the charm of small town Texas. At one point, a friendly couple delivers food for graduate students conducting an exhumation. “We call this working for the Lord,” the woman says. “No one sends us, we just go around town looking for things to do, see where God sends us, and he led us to the cemetery tonight.” Despite these acts of care, the film still ends on a quiet, despairing note, in Canales’ office. In the last shot, the Red Cross flag waves under a big moon, ripped apart by the wind, hanging on.
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