SXSW 2022 Review: “Split at the Root”

Year: 2022
Runtime: 1 hour 36 minutes
Director: Linda Goldstein Knowlton
By Valerie Kalfrin

When the Trump Administration in 2018 separated immigrant parents and children at the United States’ southern border, some Americans felt compelled to do more than just watch the news in horror. The documentary “Split at the Root,” which debuted at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival, takes viewers alongside grass-roots advocates who worked to reunite several moms with their children and supported them through the asylum process.

Directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton (“We Are the Radical Monarchs”), “Split at the Root” is at its strongest when two mothers from Guatemala, Yeni Gonzalez and Rosayra Pablo Cruz, relate their harrowing journeys to the border and later inside an Arizona immigration detention center. Nevertheless, the film provides a compelling look behind the headlines about the effects of this policy and the asylum situation overall.

News reports show that the government separated 4,368 children from their families under this policy, the film notes. Yet the figures under the Biden Administration aren’t much better: As of February 2022, the film says, 2,127 children still have no confirmed record of reunification, and attorneys still are trying to reach the parents of 303 children separated at the border.

“We’re always looking at immigration as a potential threat instead of an essential benefit,” says Julie Schwietert Collazo of the nonprofit organization Immigrant Families Together, as the film runs headlines dating back decades or more about immigration concerns.

Collazo, a New Yorker with a social work background, first wondered what more she could do beyond protest when she saw news reports of hundreds of separated children arriving in the city. Then an immigration attorney representing Gonzalez appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” relating that Gonzalez and her three children could reunite in New York City if she could pay her $7,500 bond and prove she had a stable home.

Advocate Francisco Collazo discusses planning sessions around his kitchen table and his desire to help separated families in the documentary “Split at the Root” / Courtesy of the film’s trailer

This would be impossible for someone in custody without resources, notes Collazo, who suggested to her husband that they crowdfund to get Gonzalez released. Francisco Collazo had immigrated from Cuba during the Mariel boatlift in 1980 and was glad to help.

Yet the couple agreed they didn’t want to drop in with money and then leave Gonzalez alone through the asylum process. If they did this, they were willing to stick with it for the long haul.

Through the crowdfunding process, the couple met other parents who wanted to lend a hand. They swiftly raised the bond money and coordinated a series of rides to drive Gonzalez across the country, greeting her with clothing and handmade signs of welcome. Gonzalez wept at the kindness.

The couple officially formed the nonprofit organization to field donations that kept arriving, paying for the mothers’ bond and the reunited families’ basic needs, such as food and medical care. Meanwhile, detainees circulated the phone numbers of immigration lawyers and the Collazos, leading to other moms needing bond and other reunions. (By February 2022, the nonprofit had paid bonds reuniting 124 families.)

“Split at the Root” loses some momentum as it follows Gonzalez and Cruz through their asylum hearings and adjusting to life in the United States. Because of the film’s focus on this nonprofit, it also doesn’t touch on other groups’ efforts. Many members of Immigrant Families Together interviewed here are white and say they felt a particular responsibility to help other parents but not “steamroll” people of color also doing this work. However, viewers might appreciate knowing more about other such groups should they also feel called to action.

Regardless, it’s tough not to sympathize with the plight of these families, who feared staying where they were but now feel untethered—a sentiment Cruz describes that gives “Split at the Root” its title. Gang members shot her twice before she fled Guatemala with her two sons, leaving her two daughters behind with her mother. “I’m not from here and not from there,” she says in Spanish. “Home becomes what you hold within yourself.”

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