The Future of Immigration

Alfonso comes from Mexico. He has a talent for crossing borders and worked temporarily in the USA a few times before settling here with his family. He has helped provide millions of Americans with things they so desperately crave -- and that infinitesimally few of us can provide for ourselves. But almost none of us would know his face because Alfonso works behind the scenes. Alfonso directs films.

In Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) drops viewers into a dystopian near future in which England's is the last remaining government and the world's women have become infertile. Anarchic violence reigns as freedom-fighters -- terrorists? -- battle the government and each other. Clive Owen, in a wonderful, subtle turn as an emotionally crushed, alcoholic bureaucrat, finds himself, as Theo, in the employ of a group known as The Fishes who want him to transport a "'fugee" girl to the coast. Yes, it's a quest film, but Cuarón's pacing varies such that this never feels like Run, Lola, Run.

Critics have showered the film with accolades, and deservedly so. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera work has some astonishing moments, and the actors -- including Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Claire-Hope Ashitey -- turn in solid performances. But the reason this "future" film works, the reason it bests, say, Minority Report is that it's not about the future: It's about the present. Granted, many films have tried to show us how our current mistakes will grow into future catastrophe -- among them the excellent V for Vendetta (which has much in common with Children of Men) and the atrocious The Island. But Children of Men, adapted from the novel by P.D. James, is much smarter and better-made than The Island and much more realistic and literal than the mostly fantastic and metaphorical V for Vendetta. That's why it's so scary. The tragedy of 2027 extends naturally from today's direction of restriction, balkanization, religious fanaticism, environmental degradation, disease, and, most vividly, immigration.

In 2027 England, armed guards hold immigrants in cages along city streets. Large screens remind citizens to "Report Illegal Immigrants". Black buses reading "Homeland Security" transport the undesirables to deportation camps. In a rather deft way, the film blends imagery of the machinery of U.S. immigration with that of the Holocaust. The deportation camp at Bexhill that the characters visit is nothing more than a recreation of the Warsaw Ghetto, a blockaded section of a town that, converted into a slum, serves as a prison. And when violence comes to Bexhill, it can't help but recall the famed uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto as the outmatched rebels, hiding in an apartment building, exchange fire with the army in the street.

For anyone who lives in or has visited the borderlands of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, or California, the rumbling Homeland Security buses packed with undocumented people won't seem a strange sight at all. In fact, minus the cages and the physically enforced ghetto (there are those who argue that we bind minorities in our ghettos economically), not much differentiates ICE now from England's Homeland Security in the imagined future. We encourage citizens to rat out "illegals"; we round up undocumented people and either bus them towards deportation or incarcerate them (particularly now that we've officially ended "catch and release"). We blame the "illegals" for all of our problems.And we do, in fact, have a form of the cages, though ours are less dramatic: ICE and DHS vehicles parked along roads and in parking lots near the border serve as mobile cages for detainees.

Just as in Cuarón's future, with our terminology and generalizations we dehumanize immigrants. We make "immigrant" a race, a breed of man, a class of undesirables. Children of Men, perhaps because it uses groups of people somewhat atypical of the U.S. immigration debate (Middle Easterners and Eastern Europeans -- and maybe some USians), hurls this mechanism back in our faces. Setting the film in the UK has the same distancing effect. By presenting us an outside perspective on a diverse world of immigrants and hinting at the disasters that drove them into exile, it reminds us that "immigrant" is just a status conveyed by chance and disaster, not an inherent nature.

In a particularly poignant moment, Theo switches into broken English to save Kee, the 'fugee girl, from a Homeland Security guard who has already thrown Mary (a Fish) off the HS bus and into captivity. This act of momentarily assuming the mantle of "immigrant" screams the term's transient and shallow nature.

But Children of Men most importantly shows us how immigration is not a problem in itself. It is not an issue. It is not a root cause but an effect of all the other disasters and bad choices we make. The real threat to our national sovereignty comes from the restriction, balkanization, religious fanaticism, environmental degradation, and disease and the way that we and our governments respond to these problems. People on the receiving end of migration have trouble recognizing that, or perhaps they think that immigration, even as an effect, should not involve them. But Children of Men shows us that it does. Because if, in 20 years, only one government still exists and chaos reigns even in the good ol' US of A, then who will be among those migrating?

As we step into 2007, we, particularly in the USA, should heed this warning. If we don't work on stopping the driving factors behind mass migrations, and if we continue to bar people fleeing problems we helped cause, we'll have a much bigger "immigration problem" on our hands.

Alfonso comes from Mexico, so he knows about these things from a different perspective. Thankfully, he has a knack for crossing borders and speaks a native language we can all understand -- cinema.

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