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Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
This is the second of my three-part list of the best documentaries that focus on immigration and are great choices for showing in high school and college immigration classes. This second part will focus specifically on the issue of unauthorized immigration. We all know that unauthorized immigration has become one of the most controversial, hotly-debated, and emotionally-charged issues in American society today. In that context, these documentaries highlight various sides of the debate and taken together, will hopefully provide a more comprehensive picture of this complicate and often contradictory issue.
Part 1 focused on the historical and global context of immigration and Part 3 will look at socioeconomic attainment, mobility, and assimilation. The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Sociology of Immigration” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that are good choices for that topic as well.
Unauthorized Immigration: The Basics
As the name implies, this section lays out the basic historical, political, and economic foundation and concepts that frame the contemporary nature of unauthorized immigration. I focus much of the discussion on such immigration from Mexico but also stress that much of the unauthorized immigrant population are people who had official permission to enter the U.S., and with that in mind, why we as a society focus such a disproportionate amount of attention on those from Mexico.
Farmingville: This video chronicles the events surrounding the influx of Mexican day laborers in the town of Farmingville, NY on Long Island. While the video is about 10 years old now, it still provides an excellent overview of the institutional factors that precipitated the arrival of so many day laborers, along with the individual-level tensions and hostilities that eventually resulted in the community.
In this section, I describe historical and contemporary examples of how immigrants from various backgrounds and countries have encountered nativism, xenophobia, and racism upon their arrival. At the same time, I also focus on how such hostility and tensions have been magnified in recent years against unauthorized immigrants and the racial/ethnic connotations behind them.
9500 Liberty: Produced by acclaimed filmmakers Eric Byler and Annabel Park, this documentary describes how Prince William County, Virginia became ground zero in the national debate over unauthorized immigration several years ago. Specifically and as a preview of Arizona’s SB1070, it describes how newly-elected officials passed a law requiring police officers to question anyone they have “probable cause” to suspect is an undocumented immigrant.
This section explores the various proposals, programs, and laws that attempt to address the unauthorized immigration issue. I cover the pros and cons of both the “enforcement only” and “comprehensive reform” approaches, as well as examining the variety of costs and benefits that unauthorized immigration have on American society and its economy.
“Immigration” episode of the reality TV show 30 Days (Season 2): Created by Morgan Spulock (the guy who made Supersize Me in which he only ate McDonalds fast food for 30 days), this particular episode follows the experiences of a conservative Cuban American who participates in the Minuteman vigilante border patrols. He then agrees to live with an unauthorized immigrant family for 30 days and in the process, learns more about the institutional and individual aspects of their lives. An extremely powerful portrayal that should be required viewing in all immigration courses.
This section highlights the immigration process and experiences of women, children, and families specifically. I examine the multi-level issues involved in transnational families where parents are separated from their children and the effects that workplace raids by Immigration Control and Enforcement agents have on unauthorized immigrant families.
Maid in America: This documentary follows the lives of three Latina domestic workers in the Los Angeles area. Through looking at their daily lives, we see how they balance the satisfaction of earning money for them and their families, versus the emotional toil of being separated from much of their family, including their young children.
We all know that immigration — legal and unauthorized — has been a hot-button topic for a while now. This is the case even before President Obama has even seriously tackled the question of immigration reform. One of the key points of contention has been whether immigrants contribute more to American society than they receive in social services.
In recent weeks, a few new studies try to shed some more light on this question and in the process, inject a little objectivity and data into an otherwise emotionally-charged debate. The first report comes from the non-partisan Fiscal Policy Institute and as described at the Immigration Impacts blog at the Immigration Policy Center, the economic contributions of immigrants constitute a net benefit for their communities:
The report studies the 25 largest metro areas (by population) which produce nearly one half of the total gross domestic product of the country. It shows that in the country’s main metropolises, the share of the immigrant population stacks up neatly against their share of economic output. For example, immigrants are responsible for 20% of economic output and make up 20% of the population in these 25 metropolitan areas. In other words, immigrants pull their own weight.
From the report: . . . “From the Pittsburgh metro area, where immigrants make up 3 percent of the population and 4 percent of economic output, to the Miami metro area, where immigrants represent 37 percent of all residents and 38 percent of economic out¬put, immigrants are playing a consistently proportionate role in local economies.”
The overall impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy is small. According to [Economics Professor Gordon Hanson, the report's author], “Illegal immigration produces a tiny net gain to the U.S. economy after subtracting U.S.-born workers’ losses from U.S. employers’ gains. And if we account for the small fiscal burden that unauthorized immigrants impose, the overall economic benefit is close enough to zero to be essentially a wash.”
Enforcement against illegal immigration is expensive. The U.S. spends approximately $15 billion annually enforcing immigration laws. A simple cost-benefit analysis indicates that the high level of spending on enforcement is not justified. . . .
MPI policy analyst Marc Rosenblum and Jeanne Butterfield of the National Immigration Forum largely agreed with Hanson, but took the argument a step further, making a strong case for legalization . . . Rosenblum pointed out that the net fiscal impact of illegal immigrants improves over time—immigrants are not only workers, but consumers, entrepreneurs, and investors, and their contributions improve over time.
This particular report basically confirms earlier research that show that legal immigrants constitute a notable net gain for American society and its economy and that taken together, unauthorized immigrants also contribute more both in the short term (through paying sales taxes, income taxes, overall purchasing power, and entrepreneurial activities) and long term (by becoming productive citizens and not having to rely on public assistance).
Finally, at New America Media, a third article on the contributions of immigrants points out that as the laws currently exist, legal immigrants are prohibited from using Medicaid (the federal healthcare program for low-income Americans), even though they pay federal taxes that help to fund such programs and that in essence, recent legal immigrants are subsidizing healthcare for everyone else:
Currently, legal immigrants, who work and pay taxes that contribute to our health care system will continue to be ineligible to receive federally-funded Medicaid services for five years. In this case, we are not talking about those who make at least 133 percent of federal poverty level and could access affordability credits like everyone else for purchasing insurance in the exchange. We are talking about immigrants with the lowest incomes. It is unreasonable and saddening that under the current health reform proposals, the people who really need it will not get it.
I am under no delusions that these reports and data will change the mind of hard-core or extremist opponents of immigration (legal and unauthorized) anytime soon. Rather, for those who are willing to consider valid, reliable, and nonpartisan research, these studies are useful in wading through some of the political ideology and seeing what the actual numbers say.
With that in mind, the time for comprehensive immigration reform has come. By comprehensive, it means that we need to focus on more than just reinforcing our border with Mexico. Instead, it also means overhauling our immigration detention system, which, a new bipartisan report finds, has a long and documented history of bureaucratic lapses, with the detainees routinely denied basic rights such as being told why they are being held.
It also means providing unauthorized citizens already in country with a path toward eventual citizenship and access to opportunities to achieve social and economic mobility, such as the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act (currently being debated in Congress) that would allow young immigrants without legal status who demonstrate “good moral character” to apply for citizenship.
Both a revelation and a call-to-action, Immigrant, Inc. explores the uncommon skill and drive of America’s new immigrants and their knack for innovation and entrepreneurship. From the techies who created icons of the new economy — Intel, Google, eBay and Sun Microsystems — to the young engineers tinkering with solar power and next-generation car batteries, immigrants have proven themselves to be America’s competitive advantage . . . [and] will create the American jobs of the future — if we let them.
That last part seems to be the key — immigrants have much to contribute to American society and our economy, if only we let them do so, rather than trying to get rid of them.
President Obama’s first 100 days in office have certainly been momentous and ambitious. While most of his attention has been focused on the economy and the recession, he and his administration are still planning major initiatives in the near future on other policy issues. As many observers point out, this includes the always controversial issue of immigration reform:
Mr. Obama will frame the new effort — likely to rouse passions on all sides of the highly divisive issue — as “policy reform that controls immigration and makes it an orderly system,” said the official, Cecilia Muñoz, deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs in the White House.
Mr. Obama plans to speak publicly about the issue in May, administration officials said, and over the summer he will convene working groups, including lawmakers from both parties and a range of immigration groups, to begin discussing possible legislation for as early as this fall. Some White House officials said that immigration would not take precedence over the health care and energy proposals that Mr. Obama has identified as priorities. But the timetable is consistent with pledges Mr. Obama made to Hispanic groups in last year’s campaign.
He said then that comprehensive immigration legislation, including a plan to make legal status possible for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, would be a priority in his first year in office. Latino voters turned out strongly for Mr. Obama in the election. . . . But with the economy seriously ailing, advocates on different sides of the debate said that immigration could become a polarizing issue for Mr. Obama in a year when he has many other major battles to fight.
Opponents, mainly Republicans, say they will seek to mobilize popular outrage against any effort to legalize unauthorized immigrant workers while so many Americans are out of jobs. Democratic legislative aides said that opening a full-fledged debate this year on immigration, particularly with health care as a looming priority, could weigh down the president’s domestic agenda.
In preparation for intensifying the national debate about immigration reform and as the New York Times reports later, the policy positions are starting to come together, as illustrated by a major agreement between the country’s two largest labor unions on forming a united position on how to deal with the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country:
John Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and Joe T. Hansen, a leader of the rival Change to Win federation, will present the outlines of their new position on Tuesday in Washington. In 2007, when Congress last considered comprehensive immigration legislation, the two groups could not agree on a common approach. That legislation failed.
The accord endorses legalizing the status of illegal immigrants already in the United States and opposes any large new program for employers to bring in temporary immigrant workers, officials of both federations said. . . .
But while the compromise repaired one fissure in the coalition that has favored broad immigration legislation, it appeared to open another. An official from the United States Chamber of Commerce said Monday that the business community remained committed to a significant guest-worker program. . . .
In the new accord, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. and Change to Win have called for managing future immigration of workers through a national commission. The commission would determine how many permanent and temporary foreign workers should be admitted each year based on demand in American labor markets. Union officials are confident that the result would reduce worker immigration during times of high unemployment like the present.
Based on March 2008 data collected by the Census Bureau, the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that unauthorized immigrants are 4% of the nation’s population and 5.4% of its workforce. Their children, both those who are unauthorized immigrants themselves and those who are U.S. citizens, make up 6.8% of the students enrolled in the nation’s elementary and secondary schools.
About three-quarters (76%) of the nation’s unauthorized immigrant population are Hispanics. The majority of undocumented immigrants (59%) are from Mexico, numbering 7 million. Significant regional sources of unauthorized immigrants include Asia (11%), Central America (11%), South America (7%), the Caribbean (4%) and the Middle East (less than 2%). . . .
They are especially likely to hold low-skilled jobs and their share of some of those occupations has grown. In 2008, 17% of construction workers were undocumented, an increase from 10% in 2003. One in four farmworkers is an unauthorized immigrant. . . . The 2007 median household income of unauthorized immigrants was $36,000, well below the $50,000 median household income for U.S.-born residents. In contrast to other immigrants, undocumented immigrants do not attain markedly higher incomes the longer they live in the United States.
The Pew report does not take a political position in regard to undocumented immigration and instead, as good social science should do, provides anyone who is interested with valid, reliable, and objective information and data to more accurately support whatever position they have on the issue.
As I’ve recently written about, it’s shaping up to be another fierce battle between those who take an “deportation only” approach versus those who see the bigger picture and advocate “comprehensive reform.” I just hope that within this debate that opponents of legalization for undocumented immigrants refrain from demonizing and dehumanizing the people involved and instead, see the issue as an institutional and structural one, more so than an individual-level one.
Presuming that President Obama and his administration follow through on their plans to put the issue of immigration reform on the front burner of American politics, there will be plenty to say about this issue in the coming months.
Update: Shortly after I published this post, the swine flu began making headlines all around the world, particularly here in the U.S. Since it apparently originated in Mexico, unfortunately but predictably, we are now seeing a racist backlash against Mexico and Mexicans, as described by MSNBC:
“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!” And Thursday, Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended after calling Mexican immigrants “criminalians” during a discussion of swine flu and saying that emergency rooms had become “essentially condos for Mexicans.”
That’s tepid compared to some of the xenophobic reactions spreading like an emerging virus across the Internet. “This disgusting blight is because MEXICANS ARE PIGS!” an anonymous poster ranted on the “prison planet” forum, part of radio host and columnist Alex Jones’ Web site. There is even talk of conspiracy. Savage speculated that terrorists are using Mexican immigrants as walking germ warfare weapons. “It would be easy,” he said, “to bring an altered virus into Mexico, put it in the general population, and have them march across the border.”