Thursday, June 24, 2004

A Day without a Mexican

Here's a new disaster film -- A Day without a Mexican/Un Día sin Mexicanos (Dir. Sergio Arau, 2004):
Watch the film's trailer at its official website.
The film envisions a mysterious cloud that envelops California and magically removes all the Latinos. The results are comical -- as in the case of the state senator's wife who must tackle the laundry without domestic help and the Border Patrol agents who fear for their jobs after all the migrants vanish. They are also pointed -- as schools and day cares shut down and panicked shoppers mob supermarkets for the last fresh fruits and vegetables. . . .

The disappearance leads Californians who once were dismissive or contemptuous of Latinos to hold candlelight vigils, where they sing "De Colores" with bad Spanish accents and march around with placards reading "Come back, amigos."

. . .[The director Sergio Arau and his wife Yareli Arizmendi who co-wrote the film's script] got the idea for the film when they visited New York and found the city observing a "Day Without Art," on which museums and galleries closed down to draw attention to the devastating effect of the AIDS epidemic on the art world.

"I said, 'Maybe what California needs is a day without Mexicans,' to revalue the role we play," said actress Arizmendi, who stars in the film and who was born in Mexico and raised in the United States. (Tyche Hendricks, "Dónde Están the Hired Hands?: 'A Day Without a Mexican' Portrays California Lacking a Third of Its People," San Francisco Chronicle, June 4, 2004)
A Day without a Mexican is a gentle satire (which Joe Rodriguez of The Mercury News says is "too polite" ["Who Would Pick Crops, Mow Lawns and Do Dishes?" June 11, 2004]), but what if the United States government actually succeeded in deporting all "illegal aliens" in the real world? "El profesor Raúl Hinojosa, de la Universidad de California en Los Angeles (UCLA) también actúa en la película y acaba de publicar un nuevo libro en que explora el impacto de la falta de inmigrantes en la economía californiana. 'La quinta economía más grande del mundo (la de California) está basada en la contribución de los inmigrantes', dijo hace poco a la prensa. 'Si realmente desaparecen todos los latinos en California sería una crisis mucho peor de como está en la película'" (Jorge Ramos Avalos, "Estados Unidos sin Latinos," June 7, 2004). Hinojosa's research demonstrated, for instance, that, based on a conservative estimate of 3 million undocumented Mexican workers, "[a] reduction in the undocumented Mexican immigrant population to zero [alone] would produce a dramatic drop in U.S. economic output (about $155 billion)" (Raul Hinojosa Ojeda, "Comprehensive Migration Policy Reform in North America: The Key to Sustainable and Equitable Economic Integration," August 2001, p. 6). Some advocate a more restrictive immigration policy, arguing that more immigrants, expanding the labor pool, depress wages, but Hinojosa says that further restrictions on immigrant rights, such as adoption of a neo-Bracero program, would produce a reduction in immigrant wages, which would in turn increase the demand for low-wage undocumented immigrants (August 2001, p. 6). In contrast, legalization of undocumented workers has been shown to raise their wages, creating a higher floor for wages of all workers: "Real wages of legalized undocumented workers rose an average of 15% in the 4-5 years following legalization, compared to declining real wages in the years prior to legalization" (US Department of Labor, 1996, p.43, qtd. in Hinojosa, August 2001, p. 28).

Since its May premier in cities with large Latino populations, A Day without a Mexican has done well in the United States: "It may not be on as many screens as some of the summer's big blockbusters, but the movie 'A Day Without A Mexican' has consistently sold out shows since it's recent opening" (Vivian Tamayo, "'A Day Without A Mexican' Released in Houston Theaters," June 1, 2004). See, also, indieWIRE:BOT's "Box Office Table" (June 2, 2004). The film will open in Latin America in August (Diego Cevallos/IPS, "Latinos or Chaos," June 23, 2004).

The film's funding, too, was a cross-border affair:
Respecto de la producción Yareli agregó: "Sentimos bonito de que se haya realizado con una inversión mexicana y algo de española, porque es un poco irónico traer capital de fuera para contar la realidad de los hispanos en California, y si, es cierto, un gran porcentaje de los mexicanos que llegan a Estados Unidos ocupan con gran dignidad empleos que los estadunidenses de pronto no quieren hacer, y se convierten, paralelamente, en uno de los pilares que sostienen la economía del país más poderoso del mundo, porque con su trabajo colaboran para hacer realidad el sueño americano. ("Impresionante Respuesta del Público a Un Día sin Mexicanos en California," La Jornada, May 27, 2004)
A darker irony, however, is that, while the high-concept film has achieved a modest success, making the US economy's dependence on labor of legal and illegal immigrants visible to the audience, immigration sweeps have struck fear into the hearts of many immigrants, bringing the film's images to life "without the comedy":
Across Southern California, in Ontario, Corona and Escondido, cities with Latino majorities, the streets are practically deserted. Storeowners complain of low sales. Residents avoid being seen in public, afraid that the U.S. Border Patrol will detain them and take them away.

Mothers call newspapers or immigrant organizations to ask, "Should we take our kids to school today?" and "Is there no danger?"

Outside on the streets, patrols roam: It's the immigration police, who detain people to find out if they are in the country legally. If they're not, residents are taken to detention centers to be processed for deportation to Mexico.

Suddenly, the script of the recent "mockumentary" film, "A Day Without a Mexican," seems to have become reality, but without the comedy. Right now in California there are sick people who don't dare go to clinics, business owners who fret about a 60 percent drop in sales, women who call their acquaintances asking if it's safe to go shopping.

In short, millions of people -- both longtime residents and recent immigrants -- are beset by the fear of being expelled.

"Those who didn't regularize their immigration status," says Raúl Villarreal, spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "should have known that one day they would be found." Besides, he adds, "enforcing the law" is nothing new; similar immigration enforcement activities have been conducted in Texas and the Southwest.

At the headquarters of immigrant rights organizations, telephones don't stop ringing. Many of the calls come from terrorized residents: "I'm calling to report a sweep at the Chino swap meet," says one caller. "Police are collaborating with La Migra (immigration agents)."

At times the person who calls is an English-speaker who won't accept being spoken to in Spanish. "I'm calling to protest against the illegals, because it's time that they go back," one says. Some are more threatening, conflating their hatred of undocumented immigrants with the organization itself: "Leave, we'll burn your building down."

Such is life in a season of immigration sweeps in Southern California. The authorities hate the word "sweeps" because it connotes random checks. They insist that the raids are part of a search for coyotes (human traffickers) through operations based on specific information obtained from local and state police and "people in the community."

Around 500 undocumented immigrants have been detained since the beginning of June, when a mobile unit of 12 agents from the U.S. Border Patrol Station in Temecula, Calif. began to operate. The unit's jurisdiction is 3,000 square miles. The large radius of action means the unit can act autonomously, without having to respond to orders from superiors.

U.S. Border Patrol spokespeople insist that there is no new policy behind the sweeps, and that there is no reason for alarm.

So, why is the Latino community so alarmed? Why was there such a clamor that even the Mexican President Vicente Fox had to complain about "the abuses" during a trip to Chicago? Why did up to 10,000 people march in protest -- many joining the marches spontaneously -- in Ontario, Pomona, Pasadena and other cities?

The fears are not unfounded; they are based on what people are experiencing. The population of undocumented immigrants in the state is of course much larger than the 500 people detained. Some even put the number as high as 7 million. In the United States as a whole there are 3 million children who are U.S. citizens but whose parents are undocumented.

Some undocumented immigrants have lived here 10, 15, 20 years but have not legalized their status due to apprehension, apathy, a stubborn conservatism, ignorance or poverty. Because of the comfort of their daily routines -- they pay taxes, have jobs, families, refrigerators filled with food -- the undocumented tend to gradually achieve a feeling of safety.

The recent raids have punctured that thin film of security, horrifying millions of people and making them feel hunted.

Fear is the source of rumors that the detentions have expanded to Norwalk, Long Beach, Pasadena, San Fernando, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, Huntington Park, Santa Barbara -- cities where the Border Patrol denies carrying out operations.

The rumors increase the sensation of disquiet and vulnerability, feed on themselves, multiply and worsen the climate of intimidation. There's an overriding feeling that in this country, immigrants, even the well-established ones, are not safe.

Immigration raids far from the border were common in Southern California until 1994, when the emphasis shifted to military-style surveillance directly along highly trafficked border areas. Aggressive interior enforcement decreased, and when it did recur, mass protests often embarrassed the Border Patrol and other agencies into retreat.

The recent operations -- call them sweeps or patrols -- could continue, as government spokespeople have promised they will. They could expand to other areas if, as some people suspect, the recent detentions were a kind of pilot plan.

If they do continue, the sweeps could destroy the security of millions of people all over the country, generate more controversy and animosity and become an election-year issue.

A decade ago, anti-immigrant ballot initiatives sparked the emergence of a social protest movement in solidarity with immigrants. If the raids continue, there may be another resurgence of comparable pro-immigrant political activism. (Gabriel Lerner/Pacific News Service, "Immigration Sweeps Mean Disrupted Lives, Silent Streets," June 21, 2004)
If Ralph Nader, overcoming his populist ambivalence toward immigration, follows the lead of Peter Miguel Camejo, the Green Party and the Nader/Camejo campaign will have a role to play in the hoped-for resurgence of pro-immigrant organizing.

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