Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Huddled masses

Okay, let’s be real here. There has been a lot of chatter back and forth about the “immigration problem” in America and what to do about it. But I think we all know what is actually going on. All the controversy and strong feelings really come down to the fact that there is one particular country, where the people feel they have some kind of God-given right to travel between their own homeland and the U.S. at will, without needing to bother with the niceties of legal documentation. They come to the U.S. and work illegally and go home again whenever they can. In fact, they (rather arrogantly, I might say) seem to feel that the U.S. is a virtual extension of their own country and that they have some kind of birthrate to come and go whenever they please. But enough about the Irish.

Actually, the amusing thing about following major American political issues through the Irish media is that the Irish always think the issues are about them. Much of the coverage of the public secure-border/immigration debate here has focused on how it affects the numerous Irish who have lived in the U.S. for years without the benefit of government paperwork. They were able to get away with this without too much trouble for years, but after 9/11 many found that increased border security meant that they couldn’t go home and return as easily as before. Irish TV news has treated viewers to numerous heartrending tales of the Irish in New York and Boston who have had to miss funerals, weddings and christenings because of this situation. The fact that we don’t hear too much about the plight of the Irish undocumented in the American media may have something to do with the fact that their numbers are fewer than, say, Hispanics. Or it might have to do with the fact that they are European and speak English. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that Ireland does not share a border with the U.S. and swaths of the U.S. were never historically Irish territory. You decide.

There have been a number of movies made about Irish immigrants in the U.S. (Gone With the Wind was actually one.) Perhaps the most high-profile (and most cringeworthy) on the topic was Ron Howard’s 1992 epic Far and Away, which was essentially a vehicle for Tom Cruise and his then-wife Nicole Kidman. But I am aware of only a few films that deal with the modern-day world of Irish living and work in the States illegally. One is Elizabeth Gill’s Gold in the Streets, in which we are invited to observe a group of young single Irish people in New York City, constantly getting depressed over their inhuman plight of having to live somewhere other than in Ireland. Another is Jimmy Smallhorne’s 2 by 4, which was really more about the long-term effects of child molestation. And another is Jim Sheridan’s In America which, like the other two, is set in New York City but deals with a young Irish family living and attempting to work in the U.S. without the benefit of documentation. While Sheridan’s film is about considerably more than merely being miserable outside Ireland, it still has that element to it. What all the movies omit—and which would be helpful to non-Irish audiences—is an explanation of why so many Irish come to the U.S. when they obviously consider being there some sort of divine punishment. The reason, of course, is mainly economic, given Ireland’s long history of poverty. By this time, however, there is a fair amount of habit/tradition involved in the traffic of young Irish to the U.S., supported by webs of family connections to U.S. citizens and residents. How else to explain why the Irish continue to seek jobs under the legal radar, when the economy in Ireland is one of the world’s biggest success stories? (Ironically, it is now the Irish in their own country who are contending with immigrants, legal and otherwise, who have left their homelands in search of work. Or who were dragged into the country against their will by Irish spouses, like yours truly.) In this sense, the Irish really aren’t that different from Mexicans and other Central/South Americans, who have far more urgent economic reasons to look for work in the north, as well as families and/or communities that they can fit into.

There have been a number of films that have set out to portray the southern U.S. border as an artificial barrier that arbitrarily divides people and land. María Novaro’s The Garden of Eden drew a comparison between the fence north of Tijuana and the Berlin Wall. Tommy Lee Jones’s recent The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada made a similar point, while also pointing out the potential injustices inherent in armed defense of the border. And Gregory Nava’s Mi Familia made the point that California was Hispanic before it was part of the U.S. The gold standard, however, for illegal Hispanic immigration movies is an earlier film by Nava, 1983’s El Norte. That movie chronicled the journey of a young brother and sister from Guatemala to Los Angeles. It presented a fresh view on the issue of illegal immigration (note to youngsters: this has always been an issue; it didn’t just come up this year) by taking the point of view of the immigrants, in the same way that the TV miniseries Roots, a few years earlier, had made slavery real for viewers by starting the story in Africa. In El Norte, we experience a bit of Rosa and Enrique’s indigenous culture in Guatemala and see why they have to flee their homeland. Then we follow their harrowing journey against terrible obstacles, and we share their culture shock upon arriving in modern America. Seeing this moving film might not convince hard-core nativists to advocate open borders, but it might just soften them a bit toward at least increasing the immigration quotas for Latin America.

Not surprisingly, I cannot easily identify many movies that emphasize the importance of protecting America’s borders from hordes from the south. The closest I can come is John Milius’s 1984 action adventure Red Dawn, in which the heartland of America is invaded by a coalition of Soviets, Cubans and Nicaraguans. In the film’s scenario, Central American countries have fallen like dominos before the Soviet client states, Cuba and Nicaragua. Western Europe has gone pacifist and NATO has dissolved, leaving the U.S. isolated and besieged. The first wave of invasion comes in the form of airplanes disguised as commercial charter flights. These are supported on the ground by armies of infiltrators who have slipped in by way of Mexico. In this movie’s universe, America’s only hope is in the numbers of guns that have been kept in private citizens’ hands by the Second Amendment. These are wielded, as it happens, by a ragtag band of teenagers and young adults, played by the likes of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey.

One need look no further than El Norte and Red Dawn for a quick thumbnail summary of the divergent world views of the two main camps in the current immigration/border debate. Of course, it is no longer the Marxist-inspired Sandinistas and Castro that border-security-conscious conservatives fear. Now it is the Islamofascists (and maybe, if they look into their heart of hearts, also the non-English-speaking hordes of ordinary people who may one day outnumber the English-speaking ones). In a couple of decades, will that proposition seem as laughable as the Soviet-Cuban-Nicaraguan invasion does now? Time will tell. On the other hand, while El Norte gives us noble and near-saintly figures as aspiring immigrants, it gives no inkling of the horrifically brutal gangs that have expanded operations from south to north of the border.

In the end, Congress will either pass some kind of compromise immigration bill that the politicians will hail as a success, as they pat themselves on the back in hearty self-congratulation (just as they did the last time in the 1980s) or they won’t, and politicians of all stripes will try to get political mileage out of blaming the other side for the failure. And all the while, populations of people will shift and move and adjust to the world’s economic and political vagaries, just as they always have. Largely regardless of borders. (Especially the Irish.)

-S.L., 8 June 2006

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