Monday, December 8, 2008

The Visitor, Detentions and U.S. National Identity

Yusuf Sarfati, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

The debate on immigration, specifically on the conditions and the future of the undocumented immigrants, is a heated topic in the U.S. “The Visitor”, which I watched on DVD last week, focuses on different aspects of this debate. The movie mainly revolves around a friendship between Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian drummer, and Walter (Richard Jenkins), an economics professor, in New York City. Towards the end, the movie takes a dramatic turn, when Tarek was put in a detention center because of his lack of immigration documentation after he was held by cops over a trivial issue in a subway station.

From then on the movie explores the problems with the U.S. detention system, such as the isolated nature of the facility that transforms Tarek from a cheerful drummer to an anxious individual, the movement of the detainees from one center to the other without any information provided to the families or friends, the targeted criminalization of the immigrants (Tarek in the movie, like many others in the real world is locked up for an innocent incident in the subway), the lack of training of the officials in the centers to provide basic human needs for the detainees, and the difficulties of finding representation for the detainees in the centers. Tarek in the movie was “fortunate” that his new acquired friend Walter provided him an immigration lawyer.

In addition to the issue of detention, there was a larger discussion in the movie on the role of the immigrants in the formation and transformation of the U.S. national identity. Unlike the conservative intellectuals (e.g. Pat Buchanan, Samuel Huntington) who see immigrants as a threat to a core American culture (however defined), the movie presents Tarek as a transformative figure for Walter’s life. Walter feels really alive when he starts to learn how to play the drum with Tarek. This could be seen as symbolic of how different groups transform each others’ culture in the context of an immigrant receiving host country, specifically immigrants’ contribution to and co-construction of the host culture. The positive role the immigrants play in the definition of the national identity of the U.S. is usually lost in the immigration debate, where the legal and economic aspects are overly-emphasized. It is important to conceptualize the U.S. national identity and a common U.S. (American) culture as “a page in the process of being written.”(1) The page is rewritten and transformed by the entrance and contribution of different immigrant groups. It is much more healthy and democratic to analyze the U.S. identity in this manner, rather than see it as an already written page to which immigrant groups need to assimilate. What do you think?

Footnote (1) Maalouf, Amin. 2000. In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong

1 comment:

  1. Undocumented Immigrant = Federal Law Breaker i.e. Federal Criminal [if it was us in their country what would be the punishment?] = ?

    My proposal = Undocumented Immigrant + New Federal Law [with fee's and fines] = over a trillion dollars over 40 years to be used for American citizens homeland security, safety and infrastructure rebuilding.