A Mexican named Manuel cases the fence at the Arizona border in preparation for an illegal attempt to enter the States. Two Iranian American sisters recall efforts to go in the other direction, back to their old country on a frustrating crusade for women's rights. A Hasidic couple expresses happy surprise at being able to remain unmelted in the melting pot.
These and other characters in "Destination America," a new four-hour documentary on PBS, remind us that the immigration story is much more complicated, paradoxical and ultimately stirring than the way it is usually talked about these days.
WETA, Channel 26, will air "Destination America" in two-hour installments, tonight and Oct. 26, beginning at 10 p.m.
It debuts at a time when too often the subject is reduced to something like a toggle switch in one of those hands-on museums: Flick it in one direction and you get overly sentimental accounts of this great land of immigrants embracing your tired, your poor, those longing to be free. Flick it the other way and you are shouted at about the rising tide of undocumented families and the threat they may or may not pose to the economy and the American identity.
There is truth in those prevailing narratives, but "Destination America" paints a richer picture. The work takes viewers into the minds of immigrants, past and present, whose motives fit no easy generalizations. It may come as a surprise to some Americans that each new unmoored generation harbors ambivalence about coming to the land of the free: It's not easy to leave your homeland, even if it is an oppressive, war-torn dictatorship or a famine-wrecked wasteland.
Also adding context to the current immigration debate, "Destination America" underlines how Americans' attitude toward immigration has shifted back and forth -- in favor and against -- depending on the needs of the labor market.
Each of the four parts, by award-winning documentarian David Grubin, is built around a theme, beginning tonight with "The Golden Door" -- a historical overview -- and "The Art of Departure" -- about artists coming in search of freedom of expression. The subsequent parts are "The Earth Is the Lord's" -- about those seeking religious freedom -- and "Breaking Free: A Woman's Journey" -- about women fleeing domestic violence and political repression.
"The Golden Door" launches the work with a suspenseful subplot. The camera follows Manuel -- Grubin withholds his full identity -- as he prepares to attempt to sneak back into the United States. We won't spoil the denouement. But the buildup is illuminating; rarely do we get such a personal glimpse into illegal immigration.
Manuel, who has a wife and several children, gives a brief tour of his desolate town, showing the empty houses of families that have made it to golden destinations like Chicago. He goes alone to America whenever his family runs out of money -- more than a dozen times by now -- and stays for about a year at a time. His dangerous crossings are so common for the family that there is a ritual of departure. Manuel checks himself in the mirror to decide which baseball cap to wear, says his tearful farewells, rides the bus to the border. He comes across as a reluctant lawbreaker. "Nobody else knows the feelings, how it feels when you have to leave your family," he says.
The cameras spend time on the other side of the fence with the U.S. Border Patrol in Douglas, Ariz., filming the capture of one of the 4,000 who cross into that state alone every day. Those who are caught are sent back via a barred revolving door -- an apt metaphor.
Grubin does not condemn Manuel so much as point out what he has in common with previous waves of immigrants. Early in the last century, Mexicans were recruited to pick crops and work in factories. Then during the Depression, many were kicked out. A generation earlier, Chinese immigrants were welcomed, then rejected.
In the three subsequent segments, Grubin continues encountering characters at critical moments in their lives. They defy simplistic preconceptions of what it means to be an immigrant.
Fang-Yi Sheu, a star dancer with the Martha Graham company, left Taiwan -- a free country -- 10 years ago because there were more opportunities in the United States. She still feels homesick and guilty, and we hear from her proud but heartsick parents back home.
The daughters of Ferdows Naficy, who brought them from Iran in the 1950s so she could get an education and they could grow up liberated American women, instead found themselves tugged back. Mahnaz became an Iranian government official credited with securing rights for women under the shah, and Farah threw her lot in with the ayatollah's revolution against the shah. Both ultimately had to flee for their lives -- back to America.
Of all those who came seeking freedom to worship, the Hasidim were among the more reluctant. The very liberties that drew so many were a deterrent to these tightknit traditional Jews: American-style freedom was the path to intermarriage, liberal values, a cultural "death sentence," they feared. But the Holocaust left the Hasidim little choice.
"It took years for them to realize they could actually live the way they wanted to and not feel like outsiders," says the grandson of a Hasidic rebbe.
That meant selective appropriation of American culture while maintaining core values. So we see Hasidim in Brooklyn with sidelocks and cell phones. There's a scene of a member of the community playing traditional melodies on an electric guitar held behind his head, like Jimi Hendrix.
That's America: land of last resort as often as land of opportunity. At least you're free not to buy the whole dream.
Destination America (two hours) airs tonight at 10 on Channel 26; the second two-hour installment airs Oct. 26.