Richard Jenkins

Some Thoughts on Immigration

Last week I attended a screening and panel discussion of the film,The Visitor. This beautiful film from director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) tackles a very complicated, current issue: immigration. I won’t go into too much detail about the film here (you can read my Christianity Today review here), but I will say that the film is refreshing in the way that it humanizes (rather than politicizes) the immigrant issue. And in this hyper-politicized election year—in which immigration is sure to be a major, divisive talking point—perhaps humanizing is what we need.

As a resident of Los Angeles and Southern California, I have seen the effects of immigration firsthand. I worked for a year at a restaurant in Beverly Hills, where most every kitchen worker was a Spanish-speaking immigrant (legal status unknown). I’ve seen the way that they are treated (by employers, customers, white coworkers), the way that they appreciate their minimum wage (usually sent home to families in Mexico, El Salvador, or wherever it may be). Most importantly, I’ve seen their kindness, diligence, and humanity, which is (apparently) hard for many in America to recognize.

I understand that immigration is a complicated issue. It’s an issue that, in some ways, sits at the nexus of many of the major issues America struggles with today: the economy, globalization, terrorism, racism, nationalism, etc. As such, it’s not an issue that we can easily come to terms with. Even so, I think that the prevailing discourses about immigration (especially from the far right) are very counterproductive. It’s frustrating to listen to conservative radio in L.A. and hear the ugly antagonism and veiled racism beneath the traditional “they’re taking our jobs, depleting our resources, ruining our education system” statements.

On the other side, it’s frustrating to hear the far left use the “we’re all immigrants” rhetoric to justify the presence of 12 million+ illegal immigrants in the U.S. today. After all, there’s a big (and legal) difference between immigrants who go through the arduous naturalization process and immigrants who do not. It’s a legal distinction, and a matter of fairness: should we reward (with amnesty) those who don’t play by the rules, even while millions others do?

Obviously there are arguments for all sides in this debate, and simple answers will not do. But I think that the first thing we should do—especially those of us who claim Christian compassion—is to begin to look at immigrants (legal and illegal) as fellow humans, not as foreign invaders. As The Visitor points out, there is more commonality than difference—on a human level—between people of different races, nationalities, and classes. We all want to survive, to do the best by our selves and our families. We need to get past our nativistic fears (post-9/11 or otherwise) and approach this issue rationally, with prudence and compassion.