Two Americans: Two Citizens Face to Face at Each End of the Immigration Debate

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New documentary explores local enforcement of immigration laws and the separation of families in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Originally published in Barriozona Magazine

Phoenix, Arizona – A new documentary about immigration in Maricopa County, Arizona produced in the place known as “ground zero” of the immigration debate was presented in a Phoenix theater on May 31.

Two Americans —produced by journalist Valeria Fernandez and documentary maker Dan DeVivo— juxtaposes two defining factors of the illegal immigration issue in Arizona: the enforcement of immigration laws by local authorities and  the separation of families where some members lack legal status and others are U.S. citizens.

The story line revolves around internationally known Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who bills himself as “America’s  toughest sheriff”, and 9-year old Katherine Figueroa.

The girl emerges as an involuntarily character in the context of immigration enforcement by the sheriff’s office. She is  pulled into a sociopolitical and legal dilemma when her parents, Carlos and Sandra, are arrested at their workplace by deputies, accused of working with false documents.

The documentary places its focal point on the paradoxical fact that both Arpaio and Figueroa are U.S. born American citizens. On one side of this immigration equation is the sheriff, an inflexible enforcer of immigration laws at the local level, and on the other side is Figueroa, as much citizen as Arpaio is, but victimized because she is the daughter of unauthorized immigrants.

The film seeks to highlight that while two Americans have the same birth rights granted in the U.S. Constitution, the younger one finds herself in a devastating predicament when her undocumented parents are incarcerated, and she faces the reality that her citizenship is not enough to keep her family together.

Two Americans captures the girl’s drama and emotions and contrasts them with the sheriff’s arrogance and cynicism. Both divergent real-life characters —Arpaio and Figueroa— are shown in unscripted moments rarely captured by traditional news media. The girl’s innocence and dignity stand out before a senile, media-obsessed sheriff who shamelessly gives more importance to have done things “his way” in his life than to act as a the elected official he is.

Considering its title, Two Americans, the documentary comes a bit short of drawing a more consistent parallelism between the older “American” and the younger “American”. The producers excluded family background information on both Arpaio and Figueroa to establish and weave the fundamental element of citizenship —an almost unavoidable scene could have been seeing Figueroa reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at school and Arpaio at a public ceremony, for instance. To have included a more strong symbolism of some defining aspects of the American citizenship would have achieved a deeper analysis between the “two Americans”.

Two Americans could have also presented a broader picture through a brief introduction to establish why and how Arizona and Maricopa County became the immigration’s debate “ground zero”. A short summary beginning with the massive immigration marches of 2006 through the start of the sheriff’s immigration raids in the Fall of 2007, as well as explaining the reasons Arizona saw an influx of undocumented immigrants, could have given a little bit of context to those who are not familiar with the problem as those who have lived in the midst of it.

The documentary frequently jumps from aspects directly concerning the script of the “two Americans” to others a little unrelated —among them corruption of public officials, deaths of inmates in county jails, and a protest of a group of young Phoenix anarchists, for example. These scenes, although part of the overall situation in Maricopa County, take away the focus from the central plot and take the place of scenes more essential and relevant to the comparative analysis of Two Americans.

Nevertheless, Two Americans is a remarkably strong documentary. It represents a serious and extensive work that documents a key time in history, and will have an important place within the collectiveness of other recent works on the topic of immigration. The work done by Fernandez and DeVivo stands out for showing the collision between the enforcement of immigration laws at the local level and undocumented immigrants, as well as the separation of families that result from that collision.

Both immigration enforcement and separation of families are two of the most dramatic components of the complex and highly-polarized issue of illegal immigration in the state and other parts of the country. Two Americans achieves this through two opposing and conflicting characters that ironically are linked by their American citizenship.

Arguably, one of the major contributions of Two Americans is that it shows a more informal portrait of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose grandiose personality and barefaced sarcasm proves, for the record, that the octogenarian man has long forgotten the oath of office he took to serve and protect the residents of Maricopa County, to entertain himself with his shameful delusion of grandeur.

Two Americans; two children of immigrants

While the documentary does not point it out, there is an interesting underlying reality: both Arpaio and Figueroa are children of immigrants who came to the United States looking to improve their economic situation. Arpaio’s parents came to the country from Italy in the 1930s, and Figueroa’s parents arrived from Mexico, presumably within the last two decades.

Of immigrant parents, Arpaio came to be an obstinate enforcer of local immigration laws, arresting thousands of undocumented immigrants who —though illegally— came to the U.S. for similar reasons as his parents did: to work and to better their lives.

In this context, by arresting Figueroa’s parents, Arpaio comes —if figuratively— face to face with a 9 year-old girl, and by looking at her he sees himself in a mirror where U.S. citizen by birthright is the common denominator. Constitutionally, Joseph Arpaio and Katherine Figueroa are on equal terms: two children of immigrants, two Americans, each of them representing both ends of the immigration debate.

Paradoxically, Arpaio, the son of Italian immigrants, becomes during the last few years a persecutor of immigrants, but in doing so he finds himself confronted by a child just like the child he was: a member of an ethnic minority growing in the U.S., a child of foreign parents who left their country to seek the American Dream. Arpaio the enforcer, Arpaio the megalomaniac, Arpaio the “toughest sheriff of America”, is not better, is not far, is not above in any term to little Katherine Figueroa.