You can’t pick up a newspaper (yes, they still exist) or look at social media these days without seeing something about our country’s immigration mess. Let me say at the outset that I do not support unauthorized immigration. As a general rule, I believe in following the rules. But I also fail to see the immigration crisis as an emergency warranting the shutdown of the nation’s government. Nor do I see expanding a wall between the United States and Mexico as the answer. I believe in immigration reform, but reform that is practical and useful, not merely symbolic.
So, what does this have to do with movies? As with most things in life, we can learn a lot from films about immigration, mainly what it’s like to be an immigrant. So, here are a few truths about I have discovered from movies (as well as other sources) on this topic.
Truth No. 1: Immigrants (or children or grandchildren of immigrants) helped make this country exceptional. Seven of the 39 signers of the Constitution were immigrants. Almost all of the others were children or grandchildren of immigrants. Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton and three of the original justices of the U.S. Supreme Court were immigrants. But it was not only immigrants among the founding fathers who were successful here. Other prominent Americans who were immigrants to this country include Joseph Pulitzer, Levi Straus, Albert Einstein, Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google), Liz Claiborne, and Madeleine Albright (the first woman Secretary of State). For many immigrants, America’s promise of freedom and a better way of life came true. Or, as the musical Hamilton reminds us, “Immigrants—we get the job done.”
Truth No. 2: Despite its promise, many immigrants never reach the American dream. Sadly, our history is replete with examples of how many immigrants merely changed one set of problems in their old country for new ones in America. There is no better example of this than the forced immigration of millions of African slaves, who were more property than people. Even our beloved Constitution recognized these slaves as only three-fifths of a person for census purposes but with no rights whatsoever. But this truth far exceeds just slavery. Our Founding Fathers encouraged immigration, but only to a point. Benjamin Franklin, for one, said of immigrants, ”Few of their children in the country learn English…. The signs on our streets have inscriptions in both languages…. Unless the stream of their importation could be turned they will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.” Often, religion fueled this disdain for immigrants. Puritans in Massachusetts hanged Quakers; Anglicans in Virginia arrested Baptists. And no one liked Roman Catholics, meaning most Irish and Italian immigrants. In the early days of our nation, Roman Catholics in Maryland, which claimed to welcome such immigrants, were not allowed to vote or hold public office. Even John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court argued for the building of “a wall of brass around the country for the exclusion of Catholics.” The makers of the Statue of Liberty should have added a footnote to the poem inscribed on it: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free (unless you are African, Irish, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, or Latin).” It should not be surprising, then, that fact-based films such as Gangs of New York,[i] which depicts, during the height of the Civil War, desperate men who battle each other for supremacy of lower Manhattan, at that time a den of corruption and prostitution. Bill the Butcher, heads one gang and who believes the United States should belong to native-born Americans and so the wave of immigrants entering the country, mainly the Irish, need to leave or be destroyed. On the other side, Alexander Vallon is an Irish immigrant hellbent on avenging the earlier killing of his father. It is a hard movie to watch due to both its violence and what I understand to be an accurate reflection of that period in history.
Much more subtle, but with a somewhat similar message, is Moscow on the Hudson.[ii] It is the story of a Russian musician who defects during the height of the Cold War, and who finds adjusting to the American way of life more difficult than he had imagined. Here is the closing scene of the movie:
One of my favorite films of a couple of years ago is The Big Sick.[iii] It is a fact-based romantic comedy, but it also shows the difficulty immigrants and their children have in figuring out what of their native culture they should keep, and what parts of American culture they should adopt. Here is one poignant scene:
Kumail is the son of Pakistani immigrants, which brings me to:
Truth No. 3: Dreamers should be able to keep their dreams alive. Admittedly, this is my opinion—not an absolute truth. Dreamers, of course, are the children of unauthorized immigrants who came to this country when these children were too young to remember any other home but America. Selene Saavedra Roman is the poster child for the problem. Selene, born in Peru, moved to the U.S. with her unauthorized parents when she was three. Selene grew up in Dallas, is a graduate of Texas A&M, has no criminal record, and is married to a U.S. citizen. She has a social security card and pays her taxes. She is on track to obtaining U.S. citizenship, but that process takes years. Selene took a job as a flight attendant with Mesa Airlines. She told her employer that she wanted to fly only in the United States, as she did not want to jeopardize her citizenship efforts. Her boss, however, assigned her to fly to Mexico. When Selene expressed her fears, her boss told her that since she had DACA (or Dreamer) status, she had nothing to fear. Since Selene was still on probation at her new job and not wanting to risk termination, she accepted the assignment and took the flight. This flight was the only time she had been out of the country since she was a toddler. But upon her return, Selene was detained by ICE at a facility in Houston. Legally, DACA status grants an unauthorized immigrant no rights other than an acknowledgment by the government that the person would be considered a low priority for detainment and deportation. But with the change in administrations, DACA status doesn’t carry much weight anymore. ICE kept Ms. Roman in the detention facility for over six weeks before her lawyer and a loud public outcry convinced ICE to release her. And now her path to citizenship is unknown. Granted, not everyone with DACA status may have the same resume as Selene Saavedra Roman, but Selene is the type of American I want in my country. Shouldn’t we be careful that we don’t throw out these DACA babies with the bathwater?
Truth No. 4: Immigrants are necessary to keep the U. S. economy humming. Whether we like to admit it or not, immigrants have typically filled jobs that other Americans did not want. For example, primarily Chinese immigrants working for the Central Pacific Railroad built the transcontinental railroad from San Francisco east to Promontory Point, and Irish and freed slaves working for the Union Pacific Railroad constructed the line from Omaha west to Promontory Point. These Chinese, Irish, and freed slaves filled these jobs because no one else wanted them, as dramatically portrayed in the binge-worthy TV series, Hell On Wheels (now available on Netflix). History has repeated itself today. From 2000 to 2017, in Texas, foreign-born workers grew three times faster than American-born workers. Texas immigrants during this period accounted for more than 25 percent of jobs in construction, manufacturing, food services, and lodging. These immigrants helped build DFW airport, Texas Stadium, and just about every high-rise in the Metroplex. What was true in Texas was also true in other border states. A smart, tongue-in-cheek film, A Day Without a Mexican,[iv] illustrates the extent most Americans have relied on Mexican immigrants. Here is the hilarious trailer for this movie:
Today, at a time of low unemployment and strong demand for workers, a group of Texas businesses is encouraging more immigration, not less. Many of these businesses would like to expand their operations but can’t because they can’t find enough workers. To compound the problem, the traditional source of immigrants to Texas (Mexico) is drying up. Now, most Mexicans (61 percent) have no interest whatsoever in migrating to Texas, authorized or otherwise. Overall migration to the United States, led by Mexicans, is at a historic low, down from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000 to under 400,000 last year. Admittedly, there has been a recent spike in immigration. In February, more than 76,000 unauthorized immigrants entered the U.S., an 11-year high. The Dallas Morning News reported that as many as 1,000 migrants entered the El Paso area last Monday alone. But the majority of migrants coming into America today are not from Mexico. Of the 76,000 who crossed the border last month, over 40,000 of them are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where murder, gang violence, extortion, forced conscription into gangs, and intimidation rule the streets. With legal ports of entry processing far fewer asylum seekers, many families are crossing unauthorized, turning themselves into the border patrol, and then seeking asylum. The recent HBO movie, Icebox,[v] illustrates the new world of immigration of asylum seekers. Here is the trailer for that film:
Crossing the U.S. border unauthorized, and then seeking asylum because of safety concerns is a form of legal immigration. In the last ten years, ICE found that about 350,000 asylum seekers had a credible fear of persecution and referred them to immigration courts. But the current backlog of cases before immigration courts now exceeds 800,000.
Truth No. 5: Most immigrants are not criminals, drug lords, or rapists. But will do almost anything in their power to help their families. Of course, anytime you get together a large enough group of people, that group will have some bad apples in it. But the overwhelming majority of immigrants come to find a new way of life with hope for a better tomorrow. Some end up in jail or deported for criminal activity, but many of them engage in that activity to help their family or friends. Here are two examples from movies. In Under the Same Moon,[vi] a young Mexican boy travels across America to find his mother, an unauthorized hotel employee who hopes to save enough money to bring her son to America. Along the journey, this happens:
In A Better Life,[vii] a father and son have this honest conversation that sums up the feelings a parent has for a child that will lead them to do almost anything to provide their child with a better life. It is that desire that gives them a reason to live:
I don’t pretend to be an immigration expert. What I do know is the status quo is not working—at least not well. And although extending the border wall might be of some benefit, I believe there are better ways to spend the money that would be required to construct President Trump’s wall. Here are a few ideas.
We could take the $8 billion President Trump is asking for his wall and use it on programs that will keep immigrants in their homelands. These programs could include such things as education and job training, and economic incentives to Central American countries. Instead, President Trump now wants to stop the $500 million we send these countries each year to help their citizens want to stay home. We could spend the money to improve public safety in Latin American countries through anti-corruption campaigns, police training and court reforms. And while we are at it, we can improve our immigration court system by adding more judges and streamlining processes here in the United States. We could stem the flow of guns going south of the border, as most murders in Mexico involve American-made firearms. Or better yet, we need to do what we can to limit the demand for drugs in the United States, which is a topic for another blog.
leave it up to those much smarter than me to develop and implement solutions to
the current immigration system that will help those who need our help and keep
out those who don’t. I hope the rest of
us can show a kinder, gentler America to the people caught in this morass. We
do this by seeing an immigrant’s plight from their perspective and extending a hand of hope.
[i] Gangs of New York
- Production Companies: Miramax, Initial Entertainment Group, and Alberto Grimaldi Productions
- Director: Martin Scorsese
- Screenwriter: Jay Cocks
- Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis
- Release date: December 20, 2002
[ii] Moscow on the Hudson
- Production Companies: Bavaria Film, Columbia Pictures, and Delphi Premier Productions
- Director: Paul Mazursky
- Screenwriters: Paul Mazursky and Leon Capetanos
- Starring: Robin Williams, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Cleavant Derricks
- Release date: April 6, 1984
[iii] The Big Sick
- Production Companies: Apatow Productions, FilmNation Entertainment, and Story Ink
- Director: Michael Showalter
- Screenwriters: Emily V. Gordon and Kamail Nanjiani
- Starring: Kamail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, and Ray Romano
- Release date: July 14, 2017
[iv] A Day Without a Mexican
- Production Companies: Eye on the Ball Films, Instituto Mexicano de Cinematografia, and Jose and Friends Inc.
- Director: Sergio Arau
- Screenwriters: Sergio Arau and Yareli Arizmendi
- Starring: Caroline Aaron, Tony Abatemarco, and Melinda Allen
- Release date: May 21, 2004
- Production Companies: Gracie Films and Icebox Productions
- Director: Daniel Sawka
- Screenwriter: Daniel Sawka
- Starring: Genesis Rodriguez, Anthony Gonzalez, and Sarah Minnich
- Release date: December 7, 2018
[vi] Under the Same Moon
- Production Companies: Creando Films, Fidecine, and Potomac Pictures
- Director: Patricia Riggen
- Screenwriter: Ligiah Villalobos
- Starring: Eugenio Derbez, Kate del Castillo, and Adrian Alonso
- Release date: April 4, 2008
[vii] A Better Life
- Production Companies: Summit Entertainment, Lime Orchard Productions, and Witt/Thomas Productions
- Director: Chris Weitz
- Screenwriter: Eric Eason (based on the story by Roger L. Simon)
- Starring: Damián Bichir, José Julián, and Eddie ‘Piolin’ Sotelo
- Release date: July 28, 2011