The often-desperate journeys of people fleeing their homeland for what they expect will be a better life in the New World has long been the stuff of high drama. Although it fails to capitalize fully on the passion inherent in the subject matter, "The Closing Door: An Investigation of U.S. Immigration Policy" is a documentary on a worthy subject. It airs on Channel 32 tomorrow night at 10 p.m. (and will be repeated Wednesday at 10).
Focusing on the plight of the Haitians who have tried to leave the wretched poverty and political repression of their home, sailing 700 miles in crude, hand-hewn boats with patched sails to the home of the Statue of Liberty only to be thrown into a detention camp, documentary makers Jim Burroughs and Carol Polakoff clearly share the point of view that this nation's immigration policy is a national disgrace.
At the same time they must, inevitably, confront the question "what to do?" U.S. immigration "policy isn't working," says narrator Susan Stamberg. " . . . Laws will never stop the truly desperate." But they also record the resentment of "real" Americans, angry at the idea, which they assume to be true, that immigrants are taking jobs away from the native-born, or landing here with the expectation of going on welfare.
Whether these popularly held notions are true is not really investigated, with only former congresswoman Shirley Chisholm questioning them, although the attitude they represent is a major factor in thrashing out a new policy. The film does note that U.S. immigration policy has always been inconsistent and frequently racist, despite the outstretched arms of Lady Liberty. "The goal was to keep the country white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant," Stamberg says, after describing policies that at different times have excluded Irish, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Chinese and others.
According to this program, the main factor in determining U.S. immigration policy has been the fluctuating need for cheap labor. When it was needed, the doors were open; when the jobs dried up, so did the welcome for the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . "
With 500,000 immigrants from Latin America entering the country illegally every year, another 270,000 legal immigrants, and many of the 14 million refugees in the world wanting to come to the United States, some consistent policy that encompasses both the ideals of this country and practical needs has to be developed.
There is something wrong about the children of previous generations of immigrants shutting out current ones, and the national debate on this subject must include consideration of moral as well as political aspects. This documentary, however limited, adds useful information to that debate.