Director: Louis Malle
Producer: James Bruce
Cinematographer: Louis Malle
by Jon Cvack
After Malle’s God Country (1985) I was very excited to see his next film. This one focused on immigrants throughout the United States in 1986, exploring Koreans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Russians, Slovakians, Indians, Cubans, Mexicans, opening on a Romanian jogger, running through the woods, who explains that, like most, he came to the country for the freedom and pursuit of happiness, which it’s seems safe to surmise that he found.
With immigration’s recent return to the spotlight, it’s films like this that make me realize how long this has been a divisive political issue within America. Malle gives a quote by Thomas Jefferson, admonishing against open borders and the dangers of immigration saying:
“The present desire of America is to produce rapid population by as great importations of foreigners as possible. But is this founded in good policy? The advantage proposed is the multiplication of numbers. Now let us suppose (for example only) that, in this state, we could double our numbers in one year by the importation of foreigners; and this is a greater accession than the most sanguine advocate for emigration has a right to expect. Then I say, beginning with a double stock, we shall attain any given degree of population only 27 years and 3 months sooner than if we proceed on our single stock. If we propose four millions and a half as a competent population for this state, we should be 54 1/2 years attaining it, could we at once double our numbers; and 81 3/4 years, if we rely on natural propagation, as may be seen by the following table.” Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Viriginia
Sorry for the length, as Malle doesn’t recite the entire quote, but I think it’s important to read the whole thing; which to be honest, having a read a few books about Jefferson, I don’t remember hearing anything about this, and had to confirm its veracity, as given how liberal this guy is considered, hearing what would now be conservative far right wing rhetoric described in one of his most popular books is a great discovery toward enriching the debate in regards to which side of the spectrum he was actually on.
Some people don’t want immigrants here because they’ll take their jobs, others don’t want them because they fear some type of cultural change. Regarding the first, I actually just came across a Doug Stanhope bit shared by an old professor which sums up the basic illogic of the idea; that is, if you’re scared about losing your job to someone who very likely doesn’t speak any English, owning only the clothes on their back, you’re probably not in too great a position (not saying all, or even most immigrants fit this description).
The hate is as old as humanity, as it’s far easier to blame the poor person being helped or the colored person that doesn’t speak any English for why you're struggling rather than to understand the complex ideas and reasons why inequality actually exists. Many businesses rely on cheap immigrant labor, but you don’t hear people attack the businesses for hiring them; which, at the very least, seems to offer the best solution for reform. It’s supply and demand, in which if you limit the supply of jobs, then the demand will go down. If there were no jobs here for immigrants, then less of them would come here. But still people blame the immigrants.
The point is to demonstrate that the lack of logical consistency shows the arbitrariness of their discrimination. None of the reasons people give, whether because immigrants steal jobs or some of type of cultural appropriation, make any sense. And in this day of facts and lies, it’s difficult to even have a debate at all.
In a fascinating sequence a Border Guardsmen processes a Latino immigrant who was sneaking across the border in the dead of night. The immigrant tells the guard that he will be back over within twenty-four hours, and basically until his money has all run out. Recently, on an episode of "This American Life" I learned that by simply declaring refugee status whether due to political or religious persecution, you can stay over here. While they attempt to investigate, the process takes weeks, and the individuals can often escape into the country. I hate to describe this because it implies that more people are willing to lie than otherwise might. But the episode did highlight how difficult it is to really do anything about the ones coming over, other than to send them back. The same went for the Border Guardsmen, who simply drove the man back, to drop the gentleman off, who promised to attempt crossing again as soon as possible. I’m not sure what the answer is in this case. Perhaps the laws are too lax, in which case why not attempt to speed up the legal process - lower the bureaucracy and increase the policing. Most importantly, congress could introduce an infrastructure bill to get Americans back to work, so they don’t feel like they are competing for those lower paid jobs. It’s when the economy is struggling that immigrants are often the first to get blamed. I always wonder what people will say when the economy still sucks and we have a Great Big Wall.
A contradiction that always fascinates me is knowing that everyone in this country is an ancestor of an immigrant. Malle allows us to see that most of these families simply wanted a better life. To think of how easy it once was to migrate to the states and that the country we have 100% based upon this migration is incredible to imagine in this modern debate.Thomas Jefferson has a point in that culture will shift, and before you call foul, think of how much we destroyed the Native American culture. We were immigrants who came in openly, and we wiped them to pieces.
I can’t help but roll my eyes when people say we have laws, when those laws were only put in place by people who demanded we tighten our borders. They ran into a castle, looking for safety, and demanded they close the portcullis. I honestly don’t even know where I lie on the spectrum anymore, except that we need some regulations, we should punish repeat offenders, we should continue to accept those in need of help, and do our best to accommodate everyone looking for a better life. The thing is that only could work with a healthy economy, and I think until we get back on track toward equalizing the field, doing something to resolve income inequality, we are going to have far larger problems on our hands.
I know I didn’t talk much about the film, but I think the point of Malle’s story is that demonstrating that these people are just like you - they want what’s best for their family, willing to leave everything and everyone they know behind to create a better life in America. I’ve always been proud of that. That people could journey from all over the world, escape the wildest of places, all to come create something of themselves here. Now that it’s getting more difficult, there seems a natural defense to look at what’s different. Malle’s great talent is to show what makes us all the same. We all have beliefs, some are successful, others aren’t, some have wives and children, others have generations beneath them, reinvented in ways once unimaginable.
We see how Miami’s Cuban identity was brought about the refugees, who soon comprised 60% of the city that we now consider one of the most luxurious. There’s a Vietnamese Doctor who’s one of the only Vietnamese Doctors in Nebraska, having gone there for an exchange program and never wishing to return, and he’s as boring and humorless as any other suburban upper middle class doctor. We meet a former El Salvadoran General who was a part of their fierce military - now living in a magnificent mansion, filled with expensive art and furniture, with his grandchildren running all around.
Malle shows that there truly is nothing different between us and them: some are boring, some are funny, some are annoying, some are wildly intelligent and fascinating - and yet so many Americans want to look at their skin color, or where they’re from and assume the worst intentions. If they only took a second to imagine if their own government fell into the hands of an opposition they disagreed with, they might too want to escape and hope a country like America would take them in. I think one of the largest problems in today’s politics, and probably existing forever, is viewing different people and their beliefs as monoliths. It’s a film like this that you could show to the other side. Without diving too heavily into the politics, it simply shows that we’re all people with dreams.
BELOW: Doug Stanhope making a dang good point
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