Carolyn McGraw

A beautifully produced and compelling short documentary provides a glimpse into everyday lives of undocumented workers in the United States. In an age where readers and viewers are often bombarded with opinion, this quiet film gives voice to those who live in the shadows but reserves judgment for the viewer.

The protagonist lives in a small rural American town. Although he thinks of this country as his own, the U.S. government views his status as illegal. Each member of his family is daily reminded of their precarious position. Young and old, they stand balanced on the edge of a society in which they function as Americans, but which sees them as criminals.

“In the Shadows” was filmed by two young film makers, Max Miller and Drew Heskett, with clerical assistance from Danny Zeff, students at Chapman University's Dodge College. In a telephone interview Miller said inspiration for the film came from living in an area populated by many undocumented workers and wondering about their lives. “A lot of them are here trying to do the right thing for their families. I wondered about their lives and how our policy and laws affect them,” Miller said.

The history of immigration law in the United States reflects the ever changing social attitudes of changing times. In 1942-1964 the “Bracero Program” guest worker program was implemented to fill war time labor shortages. The program brought almost 5 million farm workers, many from Mexico, into the United States. In 1986 The Immigration Reform and Control Act gave about 3 million undocumented immigrants amnesty and instituted sanctions for employers who hired undocumented workers.

By 1995 sentiment was changing. In 1996 Congress passed three acts which significantly changed the status of undocumented workers. Welfare reform, immigration reform and anti- terrorism legislation reduced immigrants' access to social programs, toughened border enforcement, closed opportunities for undocumented immigrants to legalize their status, took away due-process rights, reduced access to the courts and expanded grounds for deportation.

In 2005 Congress passed the Real ID Act which raised standards for political asylum, created additional grounds for deportation and restricted issuance of drivers' licenses and state ID documents. More than 150 anti-immigrant bills were introduced in 30 states signaling a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. Few of the bills were passed, those that were targeted undocumented immigrants, day laborers and low income families.

A year earlier, Arizona passed Proposition 200 which required state and local government employees to report undocumented immigrants seeking publicly funded health and social services to federal immigration authorities. Detractors called the law anti-immigrant and likened it to other state laws, specifically California’s 1994 Proposition 187. The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act was passed effective July 2007. Under this law Georgia employers must use a federal database to verify their workers immigration status.

In 2006 Congress began debating immigration reform legislation. By 2010, dissatisfied that Congress had failed to pass immigration reform law, Arizona passed tough state law. Since then, Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Indiana and Alabama have all adopted similar law, dubbed by some, “attrition through enforcement” laws.

Numbers USA explains: “The principle behind attrition through enforcement is that living illegally in the United States will become more difficult and less satisfying over time when the government – at ALL LEVELS – enforces all of the laws already on the books. The goal is to make it extremely difficult for unauthorized persons to live and work in the United States.”

Defenders of restrictive immigration policy say they do not intend to imprison or deport illegal immigrants but to drive them out of the state. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has endorsed “self deportation,” another term for “attrition through enforcement.”

According to The New York Times, “there is an argument to be made that the term “self-deportation” was invented in 1994 by two Mexican-American satirists,” Lalo Alcaraz and Esteban Zul. The satirists claim they first coined the term “self-deportation” as a humorous commentary on immigration policy. Since then, to the great amusement of Zul and Alcaraz, the term has entered the mainstream vocabulary of politicians.

Strict anti-immigrant state laws are being contested in the courts in a battle over whether states or the federal government should be responsible for policing the borders. The Supreme Court recently upheld a portion of Arizona’s law, coined “show me your papers,” requiring authorities to verify the status of people who they suspect are in the country illegally, according to the Sept. 7 New York Times.

Advocates for immigrants claim state anti-immigration law, such as the “show me your papers” provision, has resulted in added discrimination of Latinos. Since passage of harsh immigration law in Alabama, they report, many illegal immigrants are leaving the state in fear. Farmers and food processing plants in Alabama report declining productivity. Farmers and plant managers say workers have not been showing up for work and express concern they have gone into hiding or have left the state. quotes Georgia State Rep. Matt Ramsey: “Our goal is…to eliminate incentives for illegal aliens to cross into our state.” That policy seems to have worked. A University of Georgia report estimates a 40% shortage of workers whom farmers needed to harvest last year’s crops. Georgia farmers reported $140 million in lost revenue because they did not have adequate work force. This year Georgia state officials are sending prisoners into the fields to make up for the shortage.

The New York Times on July 9 reported a similar 40% labor shortage in California. For decades the United States has relied on undocumented workers for 60% of its farm laborers. An analysis the American Farm Bureau Federation projects annual crop production losses between $5 and $9 billion largely as a result of tough immigration law.

A University of Alabama professor estimates that with the deportation of some 80,000 undocumented workers from Alabama the state could lose up to $93 million in lost sales tax revenue. Republican legislators say this analysis is inaccurate. Forbes suggests the Georgia law has had drastic unintended consequences which have “backfired” on the state.

Clearly, immigration policy will impact the nation in ways intended and unintended. Those who feel it most are living in its shadow every day. The art of this short documentary is not only in its beautiful cinematography, but in the artful angle of introspective attention it places on the human consequence of public policy.

"In the Shadows" draws us gently into the lives a family where we hear, see and feel a world with which few of us are familiar. This short documentary persuades us to focus our attention on a sometimes under considered element of law, human compassion. “In the Shadows” holds a mirror to our faces and softly whispers, “Is this who we want to be?”

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