In a presidential election year, it’s almost impossible to find any balanced and nuanced analysis on an issue as volatile as immigration. So it’s tremendously refreshing to watch the new, three-hour PBS documentary series, “Homeland: Immigration in America,” which begins airing across much of the country this week. The episodes will also be available on a website created for the program, at www.explorehomeland.org.
Wonderfully narrated by Ray Suarez of the PBS News Hour, the series does a superb job of tackling most of the big immigration challenges – such as enforcement, jobs, and refugees. But what is unique and fascinating about the series is that it locates these issues in an unlikely place – the state of Missouri.
Missouri is not exactly the first state that comes to mind when thinking about the immigration challenges facing the United States. According to the Migration Policy Institute’s authoritative MPI Data Hub, Missouri ranks 41st out of the 50 states in the immigrant percentage of the total population – just 3.9 per cent. In first place California, over 27 percent of the population is immigrant.
But the local PBS affiliate that produced the program – Nine Network of Public Media in St. Louis – started with the hunch that the whole story could indeed be told without leaving the state. And they were right. While the total numbers are still small, the immigrant population in Missouri has nearly tripled since 1990. An episode on refugees looks at survivors from conflicts in Africa and the Middle East struggling to remake their lives in St. Louis. The episode on enforcement profiles Kris Kobach, a Kansas City lawyer and radio host who has played a key role in the harsh enforcement legislation passed by states like Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia. But it also looks at migrants fighting deportation (including some unprecedented footage of the deportation flights overseen by the Department of Homeland Security), and at local police trying to win trust in immigrant communities where some fear arrest and deportation.
For the segment on jobs, the producers looked in depth at the town of Monett, Missouri, which is a big employer of immigrants in the local Tyson Foods chicken slaughtering plant, and at the farms in the region trying to fill seasonal jobs through the H-2A temporary worker program. Immigrants there have revitalized the town, but also caused a fair bit of trepidation among older residents and raised new challenges for the local schools. And the documentary also follows the story of a local Taiwanese student who is working for a PhD in immunology at Washington University in St. Louis, and trying to navigate complex U.S. immigration laws to figure out whether she will be able to stay in the United States after she graduates.
The stories are interspersed with analysis from a range of immigration experts that sets the local issues in a broader context. Full disclosure – I am one of the talking heads quoted at times in the episodes. But don’t watch it for that. The people in the show – the immigrants themselves and the local citizens who are wrestling with how to react to their growing numbers – speak for themselves.
In an election year, where the complexities of an issue like immigration are inevitably bludgeoned out of the debates, that is a great service.