When Tri-City farmer Gary Larsen signed on to take part in the documentary series Borderland, he had no idea he was about to experience a heart-wrenching journey.
The show, airing on the Al Jazeera America channel, is a haunting, four-part TV series that follows Larsen and five other Americans into the worst parts of Mexico and Central America.
Larsen, 54, employs about 180 migrant workers on his 1,000-acre asparagus and potato farm north of Pasco. He was given the task of retracing the steps of migrants who perished on illegal and treacherous journeys into the United States seeking better lives.
One of those was Omar, a 13-year-old boy from Guatemala who died in the Arizona desert trying to reconnect with his mother in the U.S.
"We went to Guatemala and talked to Omar's grandfather, who told us Omar was a good kid who was hardworking," Larsen said.
"The woman his mother hired to accompany him to the states got sick along the way and couldn't make it through the Arizona desert," he said. "But instead of leaving her behind, Omar did the honorable thing and stayed with her, and he died too."
Larsen and the other Americans started their journey at the Pima County medical examiner's office in Arizona, where hundreds of unclaimed bodies of Mexican or Central American refugees are taken when found by the U.S. Border Patrol.
The coroner tells the group 5,500 people have died in the desert during the past 15 years trying to cross the border into the U.S. He splits the group into three two-person teams to start their research.
"We've given them a name. You must now give them a story," the coroner tells them.
Larsen said his experience in taking part in the documentary was an eye-opener.
"So many of these people embark on a journey they know they won't survive, mostly because they are unprepared for crossing a desert without enough water," Larsen said. "But they do it anyway. There simply has to be a better way to deal with the problem than the nonfunctioning system we have now."
Larsen said he believes that if the U.S. would make it simpler for migrants to get a green card it would help the situation, and hopefully lessen the death toll of those sneaking into the country illegally on the more dangerous routes, he said.
"A green card would help keep track of the migrants coming here to work," he said. "It would also give the government a better idea how many are in the country. We'll still have the jumpers crossing illegally, but it's a place to start and the migrant workers shouldn't have to suffer because of the drug traffic coming out of Mexico."
Larsen is a third-generation farmer. All of the migrants he employs have paperwork showing they are eligible to work in the U.S, he said, though he admits he has no idea who is here legally and who is not.
One of his workers, Miguel Solorio, said Latinos flock to the U.S. for many reasons.
Solorio, 50, came illegally when he was 17 years old and has been working for Larsen for about 30 years, he said. His children were born here and he earned his American citizenship 15 years ago.
"The economic situations in their homelands are so bad they have a hard time feeding their children," Solorio said. "That, along with the drug problems and corruption in the government are the main reasons people want out. And it's worth the risk to come here even if there's a chance you could die making the trip."
Darren Foster of Muck Media co-produced Borderland and was one of the series directors. He told the Herald the motive behind the making of the documentary was to challenge preconceived notions many Americans have on immigration.
"We wanted a handful of Americans with diverse opinions on immigration for this documentary and we spent about 16 weeks interviewing people across the country," Foster said. "More than 1,000 applied, and we were very happy with the six we chose. Gary was perfect because he employs migrants from Mexico, but his conservative ideas were hard to pin down. And he was curious about the issue, and that made him a good choice."
All six -- four men and two women -- had different opinions on the immigration issue when they started out on the adventure, Larsen said.
Some were totally against open borders and believed all illegal immigrants should be sent back to their own countries. Others were staunch supporters of having no barriers for immigrants.
By the end of the film, some had softened their attitudes, while others remained firm in their opinions.
What they all came to understand, Larsen said, was that there are more good people trying to sneak into the U.S. seeking a better life than there are drug lords smuggling drugs across the border. And they all agreed there had to be a better way of helping the situation than putting up a fence to keep them out.
"I was probably the most neutral one in the group about immigration," Larsen said. "Probably because I employ migrant workers; some have worked with me for many years."
Episode No. 2 of Borderland will air at 6 p.m. Sunday, with the last two segments airing the following two Sundays. The series will start from the beginning again on Labor Day weekend.
Al Jazeera America airs on channel 347 on DirectTV and channel 215 on The Dish.
-- Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dorioneal