Humane look at amnesty issue

The Other Side of the Border PBS, Sunday, 10-11 p.m. (check local listings). Documentary about Mexican immigrants to the US. Things were tough for Esther Leal when she first arrived in the United States 14 years ago from Mexico. As she explains today, ``We were illegal; we don't speak English, and we don't know nobody.'' Since then, she has married an American and become a citizen herself, and her family is doing well. The future looks good.

That's one side of the picture for Mexican immigrants, as seen in this simple, humane, and often revealing documentary. The other side tells - in the universal terms of human needs and hopes - of the much harsher lives of other Mexican poor on both sides of the border. The program - airing not long after the May 5 opening of amnesty application centers under the Simpson-Rodino immigration law - takes a low-key but meaningful look at the human stakes in the issues.

Hopping back and forth between Mexico and the US, the show captures the flavor of lives and the implacable forces that have driven so many Mexicans to look toward ``el norte'' - sometimes simply to survive. It also pictures what happens all too often once they get there. The plight of Lucio and Gaudencia Ramirez is an example. They've been in Dallas, working hard since 1981, and should qualify for amnesty under the new law, which says they can stay if they've been in the US since Jan. 1, 1982 - if they can document it.

Document it! How can you prove something you've been trying to hide all these years? the aliens ask. You see the worry on the Ramirezes' faces as they talk to people at the Catholic Charities - one of the church groups that is helping aliens qualify. Lucio can't go back, he explains. The rich landowners won't let him chop wood on the mountainside for a living, the way he used to.

Although the program views things primarily through the aliens' eyes, it presses its case without stridency, letting the dignity and good faith of the immigrants speak for themselves some of the time. And it almost continuously parallels its reasonable narrative with a flow of apt images. In Tiquero - a stereotypical scene of wood-laden burros, basket peddlars, and handsome yellow buildings - ``the beauty can mask poverty.''

Those roots will not be lost. Esther quotes her mother, whose unrealized dream it was to come north: ``If you don't have a past, you don't have a future.'' My past, Esther says,``is over there'' - on the other side of the border. And she doesn't want her own children to forget it - or to disdain future immigrants. She says she'll tell them to remember ``Your mommy was a wetback.''

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