An Inhumane Immigration System

Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman in "The Visitor"

Richard Jenkins, Haaz Sleiman in "The Visitor"

Film Friday

Indie films can do a lot of good when they reach the right people.  I saw this demonstrated with I watched Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor (2007) with my mother-in-law Jeanette this past week. (Warning: This post contains spoilers.)

Jeanette is an 89-year-old social conservative, one of those Iowans who voted (successfully) to recall the judges who ruled in favor of gay marriage last year.  A former teacher and farmer’s wife, she believes that big government is constantly giving away money to undeserving people of color.

The Visitor challenged some of her basic assumptions.  After all, it portrays illegal immigrants of color in a sympathetic light.  Walter, an economics professor in emotional freefall over the death of his wife, attends a conference in New York and finds a Syrian musician and a Senegalese artisan living in his long-vacant apartment.  (A conman has rented it to them.)  After first throwing them out, he is attracted to the Tarek’s drumming and begins to learn from him.  No sooner have they established a bond, however, than Tarek is picked up as an illegal alien and threatened with deportation to the country that killed his father.

The professor finds a lawyer for him and, in the course of the case, finds himself falling for Mouna, Tarek’s mother. If this were a Hollywood film, they would end up in love and Tarek would get a green card.  Or if it’s a grand Hollywood tragedy, then the transcendent but tragic love between two stars would be the focus and real life immigration issues would be relegated to explanatory background.

But this is an indie film so they don’t and Tarek is deported.  The professor must watch Mouna board an airplane to Syria to rejoin her son.  “You won’t be able to come back,” he says.  She knows it.

A Hollywood ending would shield a viewer from a tragedy that is re-enacted hundreds of times daily in detention centers around this country. Through the normal mechanisms of the American immigration system, people are regularly deprived of their American dream.

Jeanette, who has twice experienced the emotional devastation of losing a spouse, became enmeshed in the film, so much so that she rebelled against the ending.  Here was new love ripped away from a man because of politics. She wanted Hollywood reassurance that all would be well.

In other words, she identified, as did I, with the professor’s wail to the sympathetic but powerless staffers who deliver the bad news:

You can’t just take people away like that. Do you hear me? He was a good man, a good person. It’s not fair! We are not just helpless children! He had a life! Do you hear me? I mean, do YOU hear ME? What’s the matter with you?

So much of the political rhetoric about immigration occurs in a realm of abstraction where people are turned into faceless threats.  Give them stories and show the immigration system at work and maybe, just maybe, humane immigration reform can occur.  I like to think that, because of a film she saw by chance, Jeanette will be less likely to listen to those who demonize illegal immigrants.  Her fundamental decency now has a counter narrative that she can turn to.


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  1. Posted June 10, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    I feel the same way about Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Bean Trees. For anyone not familiar with the book, one of the storylines centers around illegal immigrants from Guatemala who had to leave because their lives were threatened. Estevan and Esperanza didn’t have time to go through the proper immigration channels, and even if they had, they likely would have been turned down and then killed by their government. They had to leave their daughter behind. Esperanza is grief-stricken and depressed.

    I think we like the story to be as simple as people came over purposely to circumvent the proper channels and if they had only done things legally, we would have welcomed them with open arms. It is way more complicated than that.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted June 12, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    What concerns me, Dana, is how a certain percentage of the American populace appears to be growing hard and mean-spirited. Fear can do that. Movies like The Visitor and novels like The Bean Trees (which I taught 15 years ago) are vital in reminding us to be generous.

  3. Nancy Gould
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    One of the best movies I’ve ever seen on the subject of illegal immigration was “El Norte”. The movie was made in 1983. It’s extremely relevant for our current time, which is amazing for a movie that’s over 25 years old!

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I agree with you, Nancy. I think the only way it’s dated is that it’s even harder to come across the border now. I love the scene in the film where the woman is unable to figure out the washing machine. And then, of course, there’s the heartbreaking ending.

    These are immigrants who are fleeing from the Guatemalan death squads. And Guatemala, at that time, was supported by the United States.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] Kingsolver is one author who has changed the way I think about things on a couple of occasions. Robin Bates wrote about the issue of illegal immigration recently, and I left a comment on his post about how Kingsolver’s novel The Bean Trees helped me […]

  2. By Assad Came Down Like a Wolf on the Fold on August 4, 2011 at 4:56 am

    […] An Inhumane Immigration System […]


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