Immigrant Song

The immigrants in the documentary "The New Americans" are indeed the tired and the poor to whom the Statue of Liberty extends her welcome. But faceless, huddled masses they are not, thanks to this series, which follows five immigrant stories over the course of four years. Debuting today, tomorrow, and Wednesday on PBS (check local listings), "The New Americans" begins in its subjects' homelands and traces both their wrenching goodbyes and their first years in the United States. Over the course of the seven-hour program, viewers become intimately acquainted with some of the human stories that underpin ever-fiercer debates over immigration in the United States.

One of the most recent additions to the fray is Samuel Huntington's essay "The Hispanic Challenge", which appeared in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. Excerpted from his upcoming book, "Who Are We?: The Challenges to America's National Identity," the essay is Huntington's notion of the "clash of civilizations," writ to fit the domestic realm. The "them" this time is the swell of Hispanic immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, who refuse to assimilate in rising numbers, splitting the unified "Anglo-Protestant" United States into a country of two peoples, two cultures, and two languages.

As Gregory Rodriguez noted in an incisive Los Angeles Times piece, Huntington's work is fueled by "cultural determinist" ideas, in which his notions of culturally mandated behaviors -- the Protestant work ethic versus "the mañana syndrome," for example -- are ossified into rigid categories and set against one another. The problem with Huntington's "Hispanic Challenge" thesis, Rodriguez writes, "is that it doesn't take into account the people whose actions it presumes to predict."

Those are people like Pedro Flores, who has spent the last 13 years working in a Kansas meatpacking factory, more than a thousand miles away from his beloved family. Flores' story is perhaps the most agonizing one in The New Americans. This unbelievably hardworking man sacrifices nearly everything in his attempts to bring his family to the United States, to give them educations and all the tools and opportunities to do what Huntington says the members of the Flores family, as Mexican immigrants, have no interest in doing: becoming full-fledged, contributing members of American society.

Pedro Flores' story is a refutation of Huntington's thesis on only an anecdotal level, it's true, but that should not be interpreted as immediate grounds for dismissal. Others, including David Glenn in the Chronicle for Higher Education, David Brooks in the New York Times, and Rodriguez have already laid waste to the rhetorical and statistical follies of "The Hispanic Challenge." Huntington's ideas about people have precious few people in them, so why not also rebut the macro with the micro? Like all the stories presented in The New Americans, Flores' story moves beyond the anecdotal in its rich telling; in its depiction of a loving, heroically struggling family, it does much to erode the fear of the alien other that gives fuel to Huntington's work.

Israel Ngozi, a former petrochemical engineer from Nigeria, is no stranger to struggle in the United States (nor are any of the individuals depicted in The New Americans). He is a refugee fleeing political persecution for his outspokenness against Shell Oil. Naima Saadeh Abudayyeh, a young Palestinian woman leaving the West Bank to marry a Palestinian American, negotiates a new language, her husband's consuming devotion to the Palestinian cause, and the wishes of her traditional mother. Jose Garcia and Ricardo Rodriguez, two aspiring baseball players from the Dominican Republic, cope with the crushing pressure to make good on their dreams, and a South Asian computer programmer, Anjan Bachu, seeks fortune in the dot-com boom.

Over the series' three episodes, we see the forces -- lack of opportunities, stifling poverty and squashed hopes, dreams of economic and political freedom -- that have brought these immigrants to the United States. We also see proud identities and close-knit families left behind. With the wryly loving humor she passed on to her son, Israel Ngozi's mother watches the video letter her son and daughter-in-law have sent her. "If you cry like this now," she says, gesturing at the image of her weeping daughter-in-law on the screen, "where will you get the tears when I die?"

The stakes are so high for the immigrants: Every test, every job interview is weighted with the realization that this might be the one chance to scramble out of desperation. "Baseball is a good opportunity, but you must grab it by the hair … but it only has one hair," says one of the Dominican ballplayers with a smile. Those fragile dreams of stability, of making a new home, are slowly ground down for nearly all the immigrants, and there is only one unconditional success in the series. The others toil at their new lives with charm and amazing good humor -- or, when that begins to wear thin, sheer grit.

The filmmakers have also fleshed out the larger issues unique to each individual's arrival in the United States. They probe into the oil issue in Nigeria, the ethics of athletic scouting and recruitment, the "brain drain" that can result from the highly educated leaving their native lands for outsourced U.S. jobs, nonunionized immigrant labor, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

At times, the filmmakers lose the narrative thread of their stories to provide all the backdrop; the second episode, in particular, loses a bit of focus when we travel back to Nigeria for the funeral of a prominent activist, one of the immigrant subject's brothers. And at times the urge to universalize the plight of their subjects leads them astray. How many happy wedding scenes do we need, and isn't there a better way to illustrate tensions in a marriage than through shots of a laundry machine vomiting foam, or tiffs over furniture shopping? The producers have also attempted to humanize rather archetypal figures -- the Dominican ballplayers, the Indian programmer -- but perhaps it would have been more compelling to feature a subject who does not fit a pre-existing image of immigrants from a given country. Instead of an Indian programmer, why not someone who works the flip, underreported side of that industry: a woman who puts those keyboards together?

Despite these quibbles, "The New Americans" largely avoids easy dogmatism or bland universalizing. Anjan muses on "what would Gandhi do" and eats a whole artichoke leaf by accident; Jose dances in front of his family's pink house; Naima's old-school mother, to her daughter's horror, fingers grape leaves in a Chicago park before deciding they are too small for cooking. The documentary is made up of such small, perfectly observed moments at the nexus of these characters' personal and political lives -- lives that form their own refutation of the kind of polemics put forth by Huntington.

"There is no Americano dream," Huntington writes, in concluding his essay. "There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English." Huntington is issuing a warning to Anglos and Latinos alike: He's telling the former to beware the masses and safeguard the "Anglo-Protestant" culture of the United States, and handing down a scorching indictment of Latinos' obstinate, rebellious refusal to assimilate, to try to conform to the hardworking ways of their adopted homeland.

It's a pity he hasn't seen this documentary. "Poor peoples' dreams are very deep things," says one of the baseball players' mothers, and no one illustrates that more than Pedro Flores' eldest daughter, Nora, a star student who loses a place in her beloved Kansas high school when the family moves to be closer to her mother's relatives. "I thought if I could finish high school … at least I would be a step forward in my life. It would have been something very beautiful … complete happiness for me. But I couldn't reach my dream. I might never finish high school," she says, with a resignation that's not bitter, stooping in a Californian field. Her next goal? One that flies in the face of Huntington's theories: She wants to learn English. "It may be the only dream I can realize," she says quietly, her hands darting over the strawberry plants.

It's a damning -- and heartbreaking -- rebuttal.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect contributing editor

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