By Thane Peterson Most economists would agree that openness to new immigrants is one of the great strengths of the U.S. economy. But often, dry statistics don't even begin to tell the tale. The New Americans, a three-part documentary debuting on many Public Broadcasting System TV stations on Mar. 29, 30, and 31, puts a human face on immigration, demonstrating the extraordinary lengths to which foreigners go to gain access to the freedom and prosperity many Americans take for granted.
Four years in the making, the series is a hugely ambitious project. It's co-produced by Steve James (best-known for the Academy Award-nominated documentary Hoop Dreams) and Gordon Quinn, a veteran documentary film producer, who sent crews to the Middle East, Nigeria, Mexico, India, and the Dominican Republic to trace the struggles of five different sets of immigrants trying to come to the U.S. The nuanced and often surprising stories they tell are a terrific antidote to the easy generalizations and casual racism that so often characterize American attitudes toward immigrants.
A BETTER LIFE? The film's subjects were chosen to probe some of the more common stereotypes about immigrants. There's Pedro Flores, a Mexican laborer who for 13 years has been working in a Garden City (Kan.) meat-packing plant, seeing his wife and six children only during semi-annual two-week visits home -- some 1,200 miles away. Flores wants to get papers to move the family north permanently.
Anjan Bacchu, a computer programmer from Bangalore, India, plans to spend two years working in Silicon Valley to improve his career prospects back home. There are also political refugees fleeing the military regime in Nigeria, a young Palestinian woman who moves to Chicago to marry a Palestinian American, and several aspiring Major League Baseball players from the Dominican Republic who are getting tryouts with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Several common themes emerge. The first is how incredibly hard the immigrants are willing to work, often at jobs most Americans wouldn't take. Flores cuts up 3,800 beef carcasses in an eight-hour shift, and his arms are scarred from the accidents that occur as his knife gets dull and he has to slash through the beef with extra force. In a video letter from home, his weeping eldest daughter, Nora, implores him: "Don't do double shifts, Dad -- only what you can bear, because you can get hurt." The two teenage nieces of the political activist Ken Sara-Wiwa, who was hanged by Nigeria's corrupt military rulers, each work 30 hours a week in a supermarket while going to high school full-time.
NOT WHAT THEY PLANNED. The immigrants generally find life in the U.S. harsh. Most of them come from communal, tribal societies, and they miss the support and warmth of their extended families back home. Their loved ones pine for them, too, as we see in extensive interviews the filmmakers did in the subjects' home countries. "Honestly, I would like to leave this place," one of the Dominican ballplayers says bitterly, and almost all the others,at one time or another, express similar desire to leave the U.S.
Examples abound of the racism and rejection the immigrants feel -- as well as the admirable kindness and openness many Americans display. For instance, after one of the ballplayers is falsely accused of sexual assault while playing minor-league ball in Montana, the matronly woman who had been his housemother and mentor defends him on TV. Her mailbox is bombed shortly thereafter.
We also see how seductive American culture can be, especially to the young. When Israel and Ngozi Nwidor, Nigerian political refugees, send a video back from Chicago to their family in Africa, one relative remarks that they "talk like American blacks. It's going to be very hard to teach them our language."
When Ken Sara Wiwa's nieces first arrive in Chicago, teachers remark on how serious and respectful they are. Before long, they're challenging their mother's authority, and their favorite teacher is warning them: "You're talking back to your teachers. You're becoming what you said you didn't want to become: American students."
A SECOND LOOK. Some ironies emerge. As the Internet boom goes bust, Anjan Bacchu, the Indian programmer, gets laid off -- again, and again, and again. He went against his father's wishes in coming to the States, and eventually, he has to swallow his pride and return to India.
Naima Saadeh Abudayyeh, the bride from Palestine, has trouble getting a job because her English is poor and ends up working at a Jewish child-care center in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. An older sister complains that she's nurturing children who will eventually become "our enemy," but Naima loves all children and shrugs off the criticism. She worries more that her husband, a political activist, is working such long hours protesting against Israel that she rarely sees him. After September 11, his activism gives Naima another cause for worry when the office of the organization he heads is fire-bombed.
The documentary has a few stirring success stories. Ricardo Rodriguez, one of the Dominican ballplayers, rises from poverty to become a starting pitcher for the Cleveland Indians (he's now with the Texas Rangers). My personal favorite is big, blustery, confident Barine Wiwa-Lawani, a natural saleswoman. She had been prosperous in Nigeria, but the government bulldozed her restaurant and cooking school as a reprisal against her political-activist brother. She starts out in Chicago supporting her two daughters by working as a cook's assistant, which she finds demeaning. She soon catches fire as a sales trainee with Mary Kay Cosmetics. Before you know it, she's buying her own house.
Another story I'll think about often is that of Israel Nwidor. I'd swear I saw him once when I was living in suburban Chicago and he was working as a Marshall Fields security guard. An affable, soulful, former teacher, he was a political activist in Nigeria who was imprisoned and savagely beaten before fleeing for fear of being killed. In the future, when I see an immigrant with annoyingly proud bearing in a low-level job, I'll be more curious. It could be someone I'd consider a hero if I knew his story. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online