I am of Irish and Italian ancestry, born and raised in a primarily white, suburban area of Louisville, Kentucky. I grew up knowing (and caring) very little about Mexico or why so many Mexicans come to our country. My first introduction to immigration issues came about somewhat accidentally when I moved to Chicago in my early twenties and took a job waiting tables. At the restaurant, I worked alongside at least a dozen Mexican cooks, busboys, and dishwashers — all undocumented immigrants.
Although they looked different than me, spoke differently than me, and had very different customs than me, conversations with my co-workers during that year revealed something both simple and striking: for the most part, I learned, Mexicans and Americans are more similar than we are different — all of us trying to survive, take care of our families, and be recognized for our inherent worth as human beings.
The more my co-workers told me about why they were working in the U.S. illegally, the more I wanted to know about where they came from. I left Chicago in 2004 to study Mexican immigration at the University of Texas at Austin, and over the course of the next few years my research took me to little towns throughout the Mexican countryside. On one trip I made to Mexico in early 2008, I brought along a video camera and began filming my conversations with return migrants, community leaders, policy makers, farmers, and relatives of people who had made the journey northward.
The result of that trip is The Other Side of Immigration, a collection of perspectives that have been overlooked in our debates about immigration for far too long, and to the detriment of our immigration policies.
Clearly, migrating to another country without proper documentation is illegal. Mexican or American, we can all agree on that much. I wonder, however, how many Americans wouldn’t hesitate to violate the immigration laws of a foreign country if doing so meant vastly improving the life chances of their children. Would you think twice about migrating illegally to Canada, for example, if the U.S. economy was in ruins, your children were destined for a life of poverty, and there were plenty of high-wage jobs to be done in Canada?
By forcing us to ask ourselves questions like this, I hope the insights expressed by the men and women who appear in The Other Side of Immigration inspire a more sophisticated and creative debate about how to manage Mexican immigration — a conversation that takes us beyond the simplistic notion that fortifying the border and cutting off jobs to foreigners is the best we can do. I hope this film can play some role in encouraging more Americans to put themselves in the shoes of those who leave Mexico and those who stay behind, using an analysis of the interconnections between immigration and other social, political, and economic phenomena as the starting point for imagining more innovative, effective, and enduring policies.