A thousand documentaries about immigration have been created for museum exhibits, classrooms, and PBS pledge drives. They usually tell the same story: America is a melting pot. We all descend from immigrant families (cough, except Native Americans and slaves). It wasn’t easy, but our plucky forefathers found ways to reap the bounties of this great land.
Destination America takes a different approach. Each hour-long segment is devoted to a motive for coming to America: money, artistic freedom, religious tolerance, and women’s rights. And each interweaves the plight of a present-day person attempting to immigrate or seek asylum. These live subjects emphasize how admirable immigration policies have made the U.S. prosperous and intellectually robust. Unfortunately, this sometimes has the effect of glossing over history’s complications.
The first section, “The Golden Door,” combines a portrait of Manuel, a Mexican laborer who repeatedly crosses the border to earn money for his family, with an examination of Mexican migrant culture and border patrols, as well as a brief history of 19th-century Norwegian and Irish settlers. Guess what? All the histories are remarkably similar.
Historically, narrator Blair Brown says, “Most were young men, poor, single, and uneducated.” “They have found themselves both welcomed and reviled.” They are exploited for cheap labor. Periodically, politicians raise a fuss about how they threaten our way of life and propose simple-minded solutions to complex problems. There’s usually the stink of racism behind this fuss.
The use of multiple narratives is fresh and engaging, drawing comparison between three historical situations that inspired emigration to the U.S., but this segment emphasizes hardships in each subject’s homeland at the expense of discussing the process of assimilation and adjustment. While “The Golden Door” refers to streets paved with gold and other myths of instant prosperity, some immigrants come poor and stay poor, and others trade old problems for new ones. Typically, the documentary addresses any such awkward truths with a caveat: the conditions for Irish girls working in Boston textile plants were bad, admits Brown, “But it was a safe haven compared to the catastrophe that was raging in their native land.” True, but being a lesser evil doesn’t justify the exploitation of immigration labor.
“The Golden Door” succeeds at highlighting the common American experience of three nationalities. The least compelling segment, “The Art of Departure,” fails because, by overemphasizing its subjects’ pre-migration experiences, no connections are made. Conductor Arturo Toscanini and painter Ilya Kabakov famously fled Fascist and Soviet repressions. But in the contemporary example, Taiwanese dancer Fang-Yi Shui moves to New York to join the Martha Graham Dance Company and I’m not sure how her story is like the others, except that all are artists. It’s also not clear what the U.S. offered all three that other countries (say, France or Sweden) haven’t also offered artists. And it is not mentioned that many artists, like black writers and musicians, have left the United States to escape oppression. The segment evokes another tired cliché, America as the world’s shining beacon of freedom.
There is one area where America has offered a brand of asylum rare in many other countries: religious persecution. The third episode, “The Earth is the Lord’s,” details the remarkable tradition of self-segregating religious communities in the United States, highlighted by the Amish, Mennonites, and Hasidic Jews. Ex-Hasidic author Joshua Halberstam says, “You can choose what you want here and one of those choices is not to become a part of the mass culture.” But Tibetan Buddhist Tsering, fleeing harassment and torture in China, is different in that she is not attempting to create an insulated community for her faith. The episode does a wonderful job showing her dilemma: caught in a legal limbo, she experiences the loneliness of a refugee in a foreign land, writing to her daughters in India, feeling homesick, and struggling through the U.S. system to get asylum status.
The legal intricacies of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, specifically its incorporation into the Department of Homeland Security and related post-9/11 convolutions, is a fascinating subject raised in nearly every segment. “Breaking Free: A Women’s Journey” not only addresses these issues, but also highlights the attempts of a Guatemalan trying to set a legal precedent for political asylum based on sexual oppression. Rodi Alvarado fled her country after husband beat and repeatedly threatened to kill her. The local legal system — in a country where six of 10 women murdered are killed by their husbands — refused to help her. Immigration attorney Karen Musalo lucidly explains the refugee-status process and institutional barriers that discourage Rodi from claiming spousal abuse.
The episode closes with Rodi’s legal situation still highly uncertain; still, she has created a support group to assist women in similar situations. Rodi is one of many people in Destination America, including a Mexican social club leader and an Iranian political activist, who have used the opportunities afforded by America to enrich the lives of others. The effects can be simple but profound. As Rosa Cavalleri, a turn-of-the-century Italian immigrant, is quoted as saying, “Now I’m not afraid any more. This is what America taught me.”
This is a fine but familiar sentiment, and throughout, the series doesn’t illuminate much beyond what we already know about immigration experiences. Fang-Yi does not want to become an America citizen; Manuel will return to Mexico; Tsering has lived in countries other than the U.S. and China. How do these amorphous national loyalties affect “national identity”? How have changing immigration policies, particularly quota crackdowns in the early 20th century, produced the current fearful moment? Destination America leaves such questions unasked.