Immigration In Popular Culture

July 26, 2010

The eternal lure of migration and the appeal of the immigrant story writ large is something that Hollywood knows how to exploit with some degree of panache. American popular culture is filled with stories of exile and struggle and the Horatio Alger path to success that we presume most immigrants to this country want to emulate.

From the cartoonish charm of the Russian mouse in Feivel: An American Tail, to the glamor of New York City embodied in director Jim Sheridan’s coming-of-age story, In America, to the much more inaccurate-bordering on propagandistic-open borders fantasy Under the Same Moon-which is purportedly based on a true story-Tinseltown realizes that this subject has an enduring appeal among a public that sees itself as coming from immigrant stock.

Perhaps the most accurate portrayal of this subject is, ironically enough, the exaggerated, tale of Anglo-Irish conflict in 19th century New York depicted in  Martin Scorcese’s The Gangs of New York. Notwithstanding the temporal compression, conflation of certain historical events-and invention of others-and the slightly absurdist portrayal of “Bill the Butcher,” a marginal figure in the American Nativist movement and successful bare-knuckle boxer, as the WASP equivalent of Moqtader al-Sadr, the movie nevertheless conveys some elemental truths about the subject that are missing from other films that try to address the emotionally freighted topic of immigration. Whether it’s the sedulous exploitation of Irish newcomers for political and material gains by Boss Tweed, or the greatly ambivalent attitudes native Americans-in this case, New Yorkers-feel towards the boats streaming into our city’s harbors, the film captures a highly complex, volatile situation that we see even today, over a century and half after the events depicted in the course of the film.

The changing internal dynamics of the city, and by extension, the country, are sketched out over the course of the movie, whose plot-line spans two generations. And while the dramatic arc of the film captures some deeper truths that are absent from the maudlin presentations of other immigrant-focused cinematic works, it still suffers from Martin Scorcese’s  irrepressible desire to draw parallels to the situation we face today. Right now we have a comparable wave of immigration-although, the actual percentage of the population that is foreign-born is larger than it was in the mid to late-nineteenth century-and with it a large number of immigrants forced to cope with the challenges of adapting to their new country.

Unfortunately, there are several drawbacks to drawing analogies between the large, successive waves of immigration that occurred in the nineteenth century and the immigration that we’ve seen since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, as well as subsequent amnesties, e.g. the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. While the reasons someone might emigrate remain remarkably similar, e.g. seeking political refuge from a hostile regime, or perhaps greater economic opportunity and mobility, there are several consequential differences between the immigrants of today and our ancestors.

The tools of assimilation that bound first, second, and third-generation immigrants to their adopted country have largely been done away with, and the negation of English as the default common language in official proceedings has meant that communication among Americans has gradually, but inexorably, attenuated. This, in turn, has frayed the social bonds both among and within communities, something even the liberal sociologist Robert Putnam-the acclaimed author of “Bowling Alone-has conceded. The speed of communication with and travel to the immigrants’ homelands has made their ties to their adopted country even more tenuous than it might otherwise have been. This is to say nothing of the technological revolution that has made the skills offerred by many immigrants-especially those from developing countries-superfluous, if not detrimental, to functioning in our society, or the vast social welfare state that, while not a primary inducement, does offer tangible disincentives that did not exist in previous generations.

The problem with the nostalgic, glossy, Hollywood interpretation of this issue is that all of the aforementioned problems are swept under the rug, and we are not afforded the opportunity to debate whether or not a nineteenth century immigration policy-implemented at a time when our nation’s interior was a vast, sparsely settled breadbasket and not an economically depressed rust belt-makes sense in today’s twenty-first century world. Sadly, that debate will not be engendered by our current crop of directors, screenwriters and producers, who seem to be stuck in amber.

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