30 Days of Immigration

With the insanity surrounding SB 1070 in Arizona (and now the talk is that the state will try to deny citizenship to children born to illegal immigrants), I was inspired to go back and watch the episode “Immigration” from Morgan Spurlock’s TV show 30 Days. If you’re not familiar with the program, it’s a reality show that has someone living 30 days out of their element or in someone else’s shoes: straight man living with a gay man, an able-bodied athlete living 30 days in a wheelchair, a heavy energy consumer living 30 days off the grid, and so on.

(Not the greatest interview, but it gives you a sense for the show in general.)

In this particular episode, Frank George, a member of the Minutemen border patrol group, lives for 30 days with a Mexican family living illegally in East LA. The twist in this particular situation is that George is a fluent Spanish speaker and was once known as Francisco Jorge. He was born in Cuba and immigrated legally to the United States with his family during the rise of Communism on the island. He actually came to the US at the same age Armida is during the filming of the episode. Armida is one of the family’s five children, and it’s Armida who turns out to be a handful for the dedicated activist. She’s smart, hardworking, and stubborn in debate. Her relationship with George makes for great television.

Frank George is in the center. Armida is on his left.

One of the things I like most about the episode is that all of the participants are very human and approach each other on good faith. George, for instance, is not a people hater. He’s respectful and gracious with the family from the moment he enters their home. He makes himself incredibly vulnerable and goes as far as to even travel to family’s native village in Mexico in order to see where the family came from…and experience some of the reasons why they were so desperate to leave. And the family is very open with George as well. They give him a comfortable bed in their cramped house and share their dinner table with him, even though if he had it his way INS would be at their door in minutes. George gets a human face for a debate that usually involves faceless images of invading hordes, and the family gets some diatribes on law and order from a man who loves his country (and who is rather delusional on more than one point, in the opinion of this dilettante). Again, it makes for great television.

But it just got me started thinking about Arizona again. Recently I read an interesting article in Newsweek by Arian Campo-Flores called “Don’t Fence Them In.” Campo-Flores writes that folks are getting riled up about Mexicans flooding into the US during a time when birthrates in Mexico are actually dropping rapidly and historically. And the piece ends with at a jab at the shortsightedness of Arizona’s government. While the state is trying to push immigrants out, boomers are just about to retire and fill retirement homes there. Because of this, Dowell Myers, a professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California, states in the article, “I wouldn’t be surprised if Arizona starts pleading for Mexican workers.”

Maybe I’m just naive, but hasn’t immigrant—illegal or otherwise—always been an economic and cultural engine in this country? I’ve seen it in my hometown of La Porte, Indiana. When I moved away in the 90s, the downtown was filled with abandoned buildings. Retail had moved to malls outside of the town center, and there was a depressed, post-industrial feel to the place. Now when I go back to visit my parents, I see a downtown filled with restaurants and shops opened by and frequented by immigrants from Mexico. There is a exciting new life in those old buildings and spaces that wouldn’t exist without their presence.

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