‘Missing in Brooks County’ chronicles migrant struggle, law enforcement challenges in rough South Texas terrain

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McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — When co-directors Lisa Molomot and Jeff Bemiss started their documentary about South Texas in 2015, they envisioned featuring a prominent forensic analyst who was studying the remains of migrants found in the desolate Rio Grande Valley brush.

But once they visited the region, about 80 miles north of the Mexican border, they soon realized the real story was so much more complicated. It was multi-faceted, political, and divisive, and they vowed it was a story they needed to tell on film.

After four years of reporting and filming and a year editing, their documentary “Missing in Brooks County” is set to be released to audiences this week.

A screening will be held on Wednesday at the Alamo Draft House in Katy, Texas; and the film opens in Los Angeles on Friday for a one-week run. It then will open throughout the country at other independent theaters.

They are going on a Texas tour and will screen the film on Aug. 24 in Brownsville, and Aug. 25 in McAllen. On Aug. 27, Molomot and Bemiss will meet again in Brooks County for a community screening of their film at the Brooks County Courthouse.

The release comes at a time when migration on the Southwest border is at a 20-year high, and most migrants are crossing into the Rio Grande Valley from the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent helps an injured migrant on March 26, 2021, who had been lost for days in Brooks County, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The Biden administration is granting humanitarian parole to a great majority of families because Tamaulipas refuses to take back “tender-age” children under seven. However, single adults or families with older children are not being allowed to stay in the United States, and many of them are choosing to pay coyotes, or human traffickers, to transport them north, through Brooks County and the Border Patrol’s Falfurrias Checkpoint, which is where this movie is set.

It is the story of migrants who risk their lives trekking dozens of miles on foot through prickly pear cactus, rattlesnakes and desolate terrain, and their families who wait with angst trying to locate them when they fail to hear from them. It is also a story about law enforcement and U.S. Border Patrol agents who risk their lives to try to find the migrants and prevent the traffickers from taking further advantage of them.

And it is the story of a tiny South Texas county, population 7,000, which currently has one sheriff’s deputy on duty 24/7 and relies on other agencies, volunteers and migrant advocates to help leave out water jugs for the migrants and to help find the bones and bodies of those who don’t make it.

“Each time we went back, the story got more complicated and that’s why we ended up telling a story that was much more less divisive and sort of ‘this is what’s going on.’ These are the different people affected by this crisis: You have law enforcement, activists, families. And that came as a result of just going back again and again and meeting more people affected by this crisis,” said Molomot, who lives in Tucson, Ariz.

“Migrants think it’s safer to come because of the Biden administration so more people are coming,” Molomot said Monday on a Zoom interview with Border Report. “But it’s really intense heat and humidity during summer that’s just getting worse and worse and that’s just a perfect storm. We’re happy the film can shed light on this story but when we made this film we made it because we thought this is something Americans need to understand.”

We’re happy the film can shed light on this story but when we made this film we made it because we thought this is something Americans need to understand.”

Lisa Molomot, co-director ‘Missing in Brooks County’
Ten migrants were killed near this ranch and 20 injured in a rollover crash on Aug. 4, 2021, in rural Brooks County, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Brooks County is where 10 migrants were killed and 20 injured earlier this month when a speeding van flipped 10 miles south of the checkpoint. Law enforcement speculates the trafficker was trying to get the migrants as close to the checkpoint as possible before making them get out to walk. It is one of the deadliest crashes this county has seen, but it isn’t expected to be the last as long as high-speed chases and bailouts continue with regularity as trans criminal organizations attempt to get their human cargo north.

“The amount of people coming across the border fluctuates from year to year, but one thing that hasn’t often been reported on is the rate of deaths and percentage of border crossers who are dying continues to increase every year and, sadly, with the heat, that is being experienced in the Southwest this year, it’s probably going to be close to an all-time high of migrant deaths,” said Bemiss, who lives in Connecticut.

The award-winning documentary is an hour and 20 minutes long but deep in context and layered with history and culture, and this week’s release is quite timely. USA TODAY named it a “must-see” summer documentary, and it has won a dozen awards at various film festivals across the country, including the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.

Find a list of awards and screening locations for “Missing in Brooks County” at its website.

The film shows struggles from the perspective of those trying to help the migrants, such as a 70-year-old retiree who puts gallons of water jugs in blue bins daily throughout the county for the migrants to find; to ranchers whose properties are damaged and are forced to hire security guards at high costs to protect their interests and don’t welcome the outsiders.

“As soon as we saw Brooks County we realized this was actually sort of a microcosm for the national immigration debate. There were all these sides and this is what you see in the film,” Bemiss said.

Filming began in January 2015 and the pair spent about 30 weeks over the next four years in Brooks County to make the documentary.

An opening scene shows a migrant body found in the brush unexpectedly, which Molomot described as “the low point of the filming.”

But in retrospect, she said it was necessary for them to grasp the gravity of what is happening in this remote and often unnoticed part of the world.

“I’m glad we made the film and we are really motivated to get the film out there far and wide but this is not a pretty story. And it’s a very dark side of our American life, which is why we wanted to tell it.,” Molomot said.

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