The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998

Immigration: Promise and Hope for Generations. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1997. 29 minute VHS video.  

One of the opening frames from 'Immigration: Promise and Hope for Generations.'
An opening transition frame from Immigration:
Promise and Hope for Generations
Immigration: Promise and Hope for Generations attempts to examine our nation's current backlash against immigration. The program also considers how recent public policies may affect the lives of legal as well as illegal immigrants in the United States. Interviews with immigration policy specialists and outspoken public officials´┐Że.g., Pete Wilson, Dan Lundgren, and Rudolph Guiliani´┐Żenhance the presentation of the material. Although it shares the general contours of the political debate, Immigration needs to address legal and illegal immigration separately, to add more historical content, and to incorporate a discussion of race and ethnicity.

After describing America as a nation of immigrants, the program attributes the growing anti-immigrant sentiment to the popular opinion that new immigrants are a burden to society. It cites a survey in Newsweek showing that half of those questioned believed immigrants "take jobs away from Americans, tax our school systems, and utilize public housing, welfare, and health care benefits."

In addition, the narration states that new immigrants are perceived as different from past immigrants. According to the program, native born Americans have an affinity with earlier immigrants: "Almost everyone of us has a story about relatives who came here off the boat with nothing but the American dream in their hearts and a few pennies in their pockets. But our ancestors worked hard. They assimilated into American culture, learning English and instilling a profound value, respect, and love for the United States in their children. . . . Those immigrants were our family, and they resembled us physically, spiritually and emotionally." As the previous passage suggests, many Americans notice new immigrants as physically and culturally different. They also believe these immigrants lack the values and commitment of previous immigrants.

California immigrant job applicants on line. From Immigration:
Promise and Hope for Generations
The video reveals that a few of these perceptions are incorrect. According to Deborah Anker, a Harvard University law professor, new immigrants make significant contributions to the national economy. They create jobs and tax revenue by starting small businesses. As workers, they keep industry in the United States, often by taking jobs left unfilled by native-born Americans. A report from the National Academy of Sciences concluded that immigration added $10 billion annually to the country's economic output. Education needs make immigration costly at first, but in the long run immigrants produce tremendous fiscal benefits.

While sharing some of the economic benefits of immigration, the program includes comments on the cost of illegal immigration. Pete Wilson, the governor of California, claims that his state spends over $3 billion per year on health care, education, and incarceration for illegal immigrants. Dan Lundgren, the attorney general of California, blames the state's illegal immigrant crisis on inadequate enforcement of the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act and makes a case for preventing illegal immigrants from receiving certain benefits. Wilson makes the following statement concerning immigration: "If we are going to seriously keep the front door open to legal immigration, which has so vitally enriched the United States generation after generation, we have to be equally firm in enforcing the laws that prohibit illegal immigration, because if you're letting people in the back door then the front door system doesn't work, it breaks down. And you create, you certainly risk creating, the kind of unfair animosity that should have now place anywhere in America." From the interview segments provided in the program, the audience walks away with the impression that Wilson and Lundgren only oppose illegal immigration and are actually advocates of legal immigration.

From the text at the base of the Statute of Liberty
From the text at the base of the Statute
of Liberty. From Immigration: Promise
and Hope for Generations
During the discussion of recent public policy, Immigration gives a basic introduction to the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act. This legislation increased sponsorship requirements, bolstered the power to deport foreigners with incomplete paperwork, and granted amnesty for illegal immigrants who could prove that they had been living in the country for at least ten years. The video also briefly mentions two other policies: the new welfare law making legal as well as illegal immigrants ineligible for most benefits including housing, welfare, and Social Security, and California Proposition 187 which denied public schooling and other benefits to illegal immigrants.

One immigration advocate criticized the policies on humanitarian grounds. The new laws could affect asylum seekers since these refugees rarely had all the proper immigration documents. In addition, the removal of benefits would leave a segment of society uneducated and unhealthy since fear of deportation could lead illegal immigrants to avoid reporting crimes, seeking medical treatment, or sending children to school.

Unfortunately, the presentation of the immigration debate lacks clarity because Immigration addresses both legal and illegal immigration. Perhaps from confusion generated by the continual switching between the two sets of issues, I failed to realize whether a debate truly existed. None of those who were interviewed expressed opposition to legal immigration. The program tried to juxtapose the California politicians with Rudolph Guiliani, the mayor of New York City. However, all three favored legal immigration, and Guiliani never advocated illegal immigration. Moreover, Wilson and Lundgren never responded to the humanitarian arguments against the new welfare law or Proposition 187.

The content pertaining to illegal immigration needs additional explanation as well. At one point, Immigration relates that many people claim illegal immigrants depress the wages of non-skilled workers and support penalties for employers for knowingly hiring these immigrants. In the next scene, it points out that agriculture, computer, and engineering industries lobbied Congress not to place restrictions on the number of employment and education visas issued annually. Does this seamless transition mean that illegal immigration stems from the granting of work and education visas? If so, the program should provide statistical evidence for this phenomenon. It should also give an overview of administrative policy to answer questions regarding temporary visas and political asylum. To give one example, how does one decide when a Haitian refugee is emigrating for political rather than economic reasons?

Asian immigrant mother and child
Asian immigrant mother and child. From
Immigration: Promise and Hope
for Generations
Apart from separating and clarifying the debate over illegal immigration from the one over legal immigration, the narrative could use a history of immigration policy. America's history of nativism and immigrant restriction are addressed in only two or three sentences. The audience does not learn why, when, and how the nation began controlling borders in the first place. Without the historical context, viewers never get a sense of how public policy reflected labor demands, international politics, and racial ideology. Even abbreviated references to national origins quotas, the Bracero Program, "Operation Wetback" and the so-called "brain drain" would have been a bonus. Additional content would reveal the ways that European immigration generated controversies over issues such as language, education, and values. In my estimation, the video's uncritical representation of America as a melting pot is problematic.

Although it comments that many immigrants "no longer look like us," Immigration does not contain a serious discussion of race and ethnicity. This does not mean that these issues are absent. When commenting that almost half of the science and engineering graduate students in the United States are immigrants, the faces of three young Asians appear on the screen. Similarly, a Latino woman and three children can be seen walking while the following narration begins: "Many of us think today's immigrants come to America in hopes of living on easy street." Many questions can come to mind. Is this family living on welfare? Where is the father? Could these be illegal immigrants? Given the degree to which race and ethnicity influence public policy, the program's relative neglect of these issues is indefensible.

The conflation of illegal and legal immigration debates, the insufficient historical information, and the disregard of race and ethnic concerns detract from the video's overall utility as a classroom tool. A college audience could better spend the half hour directly addressing the issues.

Scott H. Tang
University of California at Berkeley

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Video Review of Immigration: Promise and Hope for Generations
Copyright © 1998 by the Journal for MultiMedia History. 

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Contents: JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998