The Year's Best Case for Immigration Reform May Have Been at the Movies

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A Better Life and Miss Bala show why workers come to America—and why they leave Mexico

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This past year was heavy on "issue movies," from the 9/11 reminiscences of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to the class-war metaphors of In Time. But while foreign policy and the economy lead national headlines and the box office, immigration policy stayed confined to bitter local fights in states like Alabama and South Carolina—and inspired two of the better, and most tragically ignored, movies of the year. A Better Life, Chris Weitz’s tender, sad look at a few days in the life of a gardener in Los Angeles, went largely unnoticed in theaters but was boosted when star Demián Bichir got a well-deserved Screen Actors Guild best actor nomination. And Miss Bala, which will be Mexico’s entrant in the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category, chronicles the life of a beauty-pageant contestant after she becomes the terrified pawn of a cartel leader.

Seen together, the two movies offer a powerful case for reform of a broken American immigration system, and for action to stabilize Mexico and fight government corruption there. A Better Life provides a painful explanation of the hopes that draw undocumented immigrants to America, while Miss Bala depicts the forces in Mexican life that make it easier—or even imperative—to leave that country behind.

Small improvements in their lives make these characters happy, but also introduce them to terrible vulnerability

Incredibly modest ambitions put A Better Life’s Carlos Galindo (Bichir) and Miss Bala’s Laura Guerro (Stephanie Sigman) in the path of much larger forces. A gardener living from one day’s work to the next, Carlos purchases his former employer’s truck and landscaping equipment for $12,000, thinking he’s investing in his own small business. Laura enters a local beauty pageant almost on a lark, fitting her hurried appointment with the organizer in between her duties for her family’s laundry business. But those small improvements in their lives—Carlos's ability to drive to work rather than having to stand on a sidewalk soliciting for day-laboring gigs, and the pageant’s validation for Laura that she is beautiful—may make them happy, but also introduce them to a terrible vulnerability. Suddenly, they have something to lose.

One of the most moving sequences in A Better Life shows the joy Carlos feels after one of his relatives comes through with the money he needs to buy the truck and equipment. It’s not that his life is miraculously transformed. It’s that suddenly he has access to the pleasures the rest of us take for granted, whether it’s seeing one’s own city from the driver’s seat of a vehicle or watching pretty women passing by on a sunny day during lunch break. The happiness on Carlos’s face during these simple interactions illustrates the gap between undocumented immigrants and citizens, between the poor and the well-off, better than any hectoring depiction of squalor ever could.

But Carlos’s sudden comparative wealth makes him a target of a man with even smaller ambitions than his own. On his first day out with the truck, he picks up a day laborer who was kind to him in the past, only to have the man steal the truck and equipment, sell them for far below their value, and send the money back to family in Mexico. It’s a heartbreaking betrayal, ruining Carlos’s joy in his new ability to be generous.

Laura, singled out as a beauty, finds herself at a party she might not have attended otherwise. But instead of a happy evening out, she gets caught in the middle of a massacre and entangled with cartel leader Lino Valdez, forced to work for him and submit to him in exchange for protection.

While Carlos gets temporary access to a range of ordinary experiences and emotions that were previously out of reach for him, Laura finds herself exposed to a horrifying new normal. When Laura has thousands of dollars taped to her body to smuggle into the United States, we’re terrified for her. But Lino and his collaborators are relaxed, and not just because she’s taking the risk for them. It’s hard to think of a better demonstration of the enormousness and porousness of the border between the U.S. and Mexico than the sight of a rickety little plane passing over it effortlessly. Later, Lino casually strings the body of a murdered Drug Enforcement Agency officer up over a bridge in broad daylight. It was one of the more disconcerting things I saw in theaters this year.

And when Carlos’s and Laura’s wild runs across Los Angeles and the peninsula end as such chases inevitably must, they find themselves in the clutches of justice systems that are implacable in very different ways. In Carlos’s case, the efficient machinery set up by the United States government to deport undocumented workers has essentially no room for appeal. The volunteer lawyer who visits him recognizes that Carlos has all the makings of a solid citizen, but none of the resources to fight for an incredibly rare exemption to the rules that say he must be returned to Mexico. The most the system can bend is to give Carlos a moment with his son before shipping the gardener off in shackles.

If a state with something to offer citizens its citizens can afford this kind of callousness, a state that couldn’t care less about its people can be all the more harsh and arbitrary. And it turns out not to matter to the Mexican government that Laura’s been coerced, threatened with death, and raped. Treating her as a collaborator with the cartel makes for a more interesting news story, so after she tips off a powerful general of a coming attack, she’s imprisoned, trotted out before the news cameras, and ultimately abandoned on the streets of Baja California.

Faced with treatment like that, with the knowledge that the border is crossable and that beyond it lies something better—even if only the placidity of poverty—of course immigrants will keep coming to the United States from Mexico. The immigration system that deports Carlos may be designed to preserve American jobs and the benefits of American citizenship for legal residents. But knowing why immigrants come here isn’t the same as understanding what compels them to leave there. A Better Life and Miss Bala together tell both of those stories. They should be mandatory viewing for policymakers who would rather punt immigration reform to the next election cycle—and for any of us who are at risk of taking America for granted.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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