Books, Movies, & Music About Immigration

In this section, we like to highlight books, movies, and music that contribute to our understanding of immigration and immigration-related topics.

Coyotes By Ted Conover

“Ted Conover has written a book about the Mexican poor that is at once intimate and epic.Coyotes is travel literature, social protest, and affirmation. I can compare this book to the best of George Orwell’s journeys to the heart of poverty.” – Richard Rodriguez, author of Brown andHunger of Memory

“Honest, funny, touching and important . . . There is grace in this book, even more wisdom. What makes it really glow on every page is Mr. Conover’s realization that he is dealing neither with a crime nor a tragedy, but with another of those human adventures that make America a country that is constantly renewing itself . . . remarkable.” – T.D. Allman, New York Times Book Review

Interview: Ted Conover – The Savvy Traveler (link to audio)

Writer Ted Conover – Fresh Air – July 3, 2003 (link to audio) (This interview concentrates on Ten Conover’s 2003 New York Times Magazine article on Guatanamo.)

The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, Directed By Tommy Lee Jones

Tommy Lee Jones’s directorial debut, The Three Burials of Melqiuades Estrada, is a beautiful movie about border politics, friendship, grace, justice, and redemption. Jones plays Pete Perkins, a small-time Texas rancher, who promises his hired hand and best friend, Melquiades Estrada (Julio César Cedillo), that if he dies on the American side of the border, Pete will make sure he is returned to his family in Mexico and buried there. When Melquiades is shot and killed by a border patrol agent and the local sheriff refuses to investigate the murder, Pete kidnaps the guilty agent and makes him dig up Melquiades’s body. Then Pete and the border patrol agent journey to Mexico to bury Melquiades in his hometown.

In Return Home to Mexico, an Industry Rises – New York Times – June 11, 2007

Jones’ ‘Three Burials’ Fulfills Its Promise – All Things Considered – Feb. 3, 2006 (link to audio)

Tommy Lee Jones, Exploring New Territory – Weekend Edition – Jan. 28, 2006 (link to audio)

Border by Lila Downs

From the inside cover of the cd jacket:

The modern world is a world of immigrants. We leave our homelands and come to the ‘first world.’ We arrive in Los Angeles and New York, London and Paris, crossing the border in search of a better life. Politicians and pundits often blame us for the social and economic problems of the day. Why is it that the United States, which proudly calls itself “a country of immigrants,” treats immigrants like aliens from another planet? These so-called ‘aliens’ take care of their children, pick their fruit and vegetables, clean their homes, and handle every job imaginable for the lowest wages. Is it too much to ask that we immigrants be granted the most basic human rights?

In this recording, Lila Downs sings about the immigrant experience without sounding preachy or intellectual. She is their voice in both joy and pain. She sings about love, that ethereal thing which has no borders and is felt by everyone rich or poor, immigrant or not. These songs tell their story, your story, my story. Listen and remember.

Betto Arcos, 90.7 – KPFK Los Angles

Lila Downs Official Web Site

Lila Downs – MySpace page

Mexican-American Singer Lila Downs – All Things Considered – July 5, 2004 (link to audio)

Lila Downs: ‘Border’ – Weekend Edition – Aug. 26, 2001 (link to audio)

Enrique’s Journey By Sonia Nazario

Each year thousands of children travel to the United States alone in the hopes of being reunited with their parents. In Enrique’s Journey, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sonia Nazario tells the story of a young Honduran boy named Enrique who risked his life to travel to the U.S. in search of his mother.

Enrique faces constant danger, whether at the hands of Mexican immigration authorities, from the gangs that rule the tops of the freight trains he rides through Mexico, from the trains themselves, from the bandits that seek to rob him, and from the coyotes who profit in human smuggling.

Despite numerous failed attempts, Enrique keeps trying to reach the U.S. Finally he succeeds and is overjoyed to live his life with his mother once again at his side. Soon, however, his anger and bitterness at being left behind surface with a fierceness neither he nor his mother could have imagined or can now control.

His journey is heartbreaking.

Enrique’s Journey – The Official Site

The Train of Death: Interview with Sonia Nazario – Mother Jones – March 3, 2006

Against Peril’s and Odds: A Boy’s Trek to the U.S. – Fresh Air – Feb. 20, 2006 (link to audio)

Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights

Living With Illegals, Directed By Sorious Samura

Sorious Samura has said that journalism is about “poking truth in the eye.”

In Living with Illegals, Samura joins a group of African migrants who smuggle themselves from Morocco into Spain and then cross into the U.K. on a cross-Channel lorry. Minutes into the film we see that the U.S. is not the only country wasting money on walls and fences. Samura shows us the massive double fence topped with razor wire that separates the Spanish enclave of Cueta from Africa. Then we watch as Samura and his fellow “illegals” go through it.

The first step of the journey is complete but there are few jobs in Cueta, forcing the migrants to move on. Eventually they make their way to Barcelona, then Calais, and finally to the U.K. It’s not an easy journey nor is it an easy life once the journey is over. But as one of the migrants puts it, his choice is to live illegally or to die.

Samura ends the documentary by hitting us with this fact: “They will continue to come even if we electrify the seas. Surely there must be a better way to deal with them than this.”

For some reason the dvd would not play in my dvd player but I was able to watch it on my laptop.

Sorious Samura: ‘Living with Illegals’ – CNN – Aug. 4, 2006

African migrants’ desperate journey – BBC News – July 6, 2006

Seeking Europe’s ‘promised land’ – BBC News – Sept. 29, 2005

Djin Djin By Angelique Kidjo

This is a great album. The product description from

With DJIN DJIN (pronounced “gin gin”), Angelique Kidjo returns to the soul of Benin – and, for the first time, shares it with a cast of all-star guests, in a marriage of cultures that has significance far beyond music alone. Inspired by the traditions and culture of Kidjo’s native Benin in West Africa, the title of the album refers to the sound of the bell that greets the beginning of a new day for Africa.

The diversity represented by Alicia Keys, Peter Gabriel, Josh Groban, Carlos Santana, Joss Stone, Branford Marsalis, producer Tony Visconti, and the others who contribute to DJIN DJIN speaks to the lesson of this project: For all the differences in the music of our time, the river of Africa flows through it all.

The key was to build DJIN DJIN on a Beninese foundation. The heartbeat, then, comes from percussionists Crespin Kpitiki and Benoit Avihoue, both members of Benin’s Gangbé Brass Band. Details of their country’s rhythmic heritage, specific in some cases to individual villages, feed the rhythms they lay down throughout the album.

To this mix Kidjo welcomes players whose backgrounds complement the idea of DJIN DJIN: drummer Poogie Bell, known for his work with Erykah Badu and Chaka Khan; funk keyboard wizard Amp Fiddler, whose credits include Prince and George Clinton; Larry Campbell, whose multi-instrumental work has adorned the music of Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and Paul Simon; Senegalese bass giant Habib Faye, a fixture with Youssou N’Dour; guitarists Lionel Loueke, from jazz legend Herbie Hancock’s band; Romero Lubambo, a Brazilian wonder whose credits include Diana Krall and Dianne Reeves; Joao Mota, from Guinea-Bissau and kora master Mamadou Diabate.

Angelique Kidjo – Official Site

UNICEF People – International Ambassador Agelique Kidjo

Kidjo’s ‘Djin Djin’ rings loud, clear – Washington Times – May 1, 2007

Angelique Kidjo is truly an international performer – Houston Chronicle – April 18, 2007

Angelique Kidjo: Staking Out New Ground – World Cafe – March 16, 2007 (link to audio)

The Namesake By Jhumpa Lahiri

Few books tackle the immigrant experience from the perspective of both immigrant parents and their American-born children with the poise and beauty of The Namesake.

An excerpt:

But nothing feels normal to Ashima. For the past eighteen months, ever since she’s arrived in Cambridge, nothing has felt normal at all. It’s not so much the pain, which she knows, somehow, she will survive. It’s the consequence: motherhood in a foreign land. For it was one thing to be pregnant, to suffer the queasy mornings in bed, the sleepless nights, the dull throbbing in her back, the countless visits to the bathroom.Throughout the experience, in spite of her growing discomfort, she’d been astonished by her body’s ability to make life, exactly as her mother and grandmother and all her great-grandmothers had done. That it was happening so far from home, unmonitored and unobserved by those she loved, had made it more miraculous still. But she is terrified to raise a child in a country where she is related to no one, where she knows so little, where life seems so tentative and spare.

Writer Jhumpa Lahiri – Fresh Air – Sept. 4, 2003 (link to audio)

Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times

Amy Reiter’s review in

The Namesake, Directed By Mira Nair, Based On The Novel By Jhumpa Lahiri

From the director of Salaam Bombay!, Mississippi Masala, and Monsoon Wedding comes the beautiful adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake.

I saw it on my birthday with my husband and my parents. It was the perfect gift.

The Namesake – Official Movie Site

‘Namesake,’ a Family Comedy Spanning Eras – All Things Considered – March 9, 2007 (link to audio)

Nair’s ‘The Namesake’: A Life Between Two Worlds – Morning Edition – March 9, 2007 (link to audio)

Mira Nair Brings ‘The Namesake’ to Film – Fresh Air – March 6, 2007 (link to audio)

Us & Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind By David Berreby

As Walter Lippman wrote in 19122, “the stereotype not only saves time in a busy life and is a defense of our position in society, but tends to preserve us from all the bewildering effect of trying to see the world steadily and see it whole.” In his fascinating book, Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, David Berreby starts from the same premise: our minds are wired to divide us into groups, or as Berreby calls them “human kinds.”

At any one time, we each belong to many different human kinds. A person can be, for example, Lebanese, a mother, a lawyer, a U.S. citizen, a Philadelphia 76ers fan, and a cancer patient. Our human kinds shift with time and context, and they become more or less important in certain times and situations. Because human kinds are our own inventions, they can even become extinct when society decides they are no longer useful (the irony being they are rarely useful in the ways we think they are).

The trouble stems from our natural tendency to associate positive attributes to the kinds we belong to and our instinct to link negative qualities with the kinds we don’t belong to. Drawing upon research from an astonishing array of disciplines, including social psychology, neural biology, molecular genetics, and anthropology, Berreby explains that we can’t help but define ourselves by how we define others. Unfortunately our natural way of thinking leads to racism and discrimination and sometimes to atrocities like war and genocide.

Armed with the knowledge of why we think the way we do, hopefully we can begin to confront ourselves rather than one another.

David Berreby – Official Web Site (Chapter One of Us and Them is posted.)

Lazy, Job-Stealing Immigrants? – Washington Post – April 30, 2007

Harvard Implicit Association Test

See No Bias – Washington Post – Jan. 23, 2005

Lone Star, Directed By John Sayles

After you read Berreby’s book, watch Lone Star and see how powerful and silly human kinds can be. The film takes place in 1957 in the desert border town of Frontera, Texas. To make things interesting, there is a murder and a romance.

As Roger Ebert wrote:

Lone Star is a great American movie, one of the few to seriously try to regard with open eyes the way we live now. Set in a town that until very recently was rigidly segregated, it shows how Chicanos, blacks, whites and Indians shared a common history, and how they knew one another and dealt with one another in ways that were off the official map. This film is a wonder — the best work yet by one of our most original and independent filmmakers — and after it is over, and you begin to think about it, its meanings begin to flower.

Some of my favorite lines:

Pilar Cruz: All my mother does is work. That’s how you get to be Spanish.


Otis Payne: It’s not like there’s a line between the good people and the bad people. It’s not like you’re one or the other.


Wesley Birdsong: This stretch of road runs between nowhere and not much else.


Chet Payne: So I’m part Indian?

Otis Payne: By blood you are. But blood only means what you let it.

Filmmaker, Novelist John Sayles – Talk of the Nation – Jan. 9, 2006 (link to audio)

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens & The Making Of Modern America By Mae N. Ngai

As the country and Congress furiously debate the future of the 10 to 12 million illegal aliens within our borders, few of us understand how we got here. In her painstakingly researched book, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, University of Chicago Professor Mae N. Ngai traces the history of numerical restriction in U.S. immigration policy between the years, 1924-1965 and answers an important but ignored question: which came first – U.S. immigration policy or the illegal immigrant?

As Professor Ngai shows us, the line between “legal” and “illegal” immigrant is a soft and fluid one:

[I]llegal alienage is not a natural or fixed condition but the product of positive law; it is contingent and at times it is unstable. The line between legal and illegal status can be crossed in both directions. An illegal alien can, under certain conditions, adjust his or her status and become legal and hence eligible for citizenship. And legal aliens who violate certain laws can become illegal and hence expelled and, in some cases, forever barred from reentry and the possibility of citizenship.

“A Tale of Deportation in the 1930s” – National Public Radio – April 5, 2006 (link to audio)

Children of Men, Written & Directed By Alfonso Cuarón, Based On The Book By P.D. James

The movie never gives us a clear reason for the infertility – it is irrelevant to the story, which concerns itself with how the government and ordinary folk would react to such a devastating problem. Children of Men suggests that one possibility would be the locking up of a politically disadvantaged group often used as a scapegoat: illegal immigrants.

Speakers on buses blare with instructions to turn in any illegal immigrant to the authorities. Refugees (referred to as “Fugees” in the film) pour into England, and they, along with other illegal immigrants, are locked in cages that sit on sidewalks.

Amidst all of the madness, a young, black Fugee named Kee becomes pregnant. A London office worker named Theo is recruited to get travel documents for Kee so she can leave war-torn England. Theo and Kee travel together, narrowly escaping capture by government officials and revolutionaries who seek to use Kee’s pregnancy for their own political motives.

In one sense, Children of Men is a simple chase movie. But its stunning and complex visuals leave you with a lot to think about.

Cuarón Faced New Challenges in ‘Children of Men’ – National Public Radio – Dec. 20, 2006 (link to audio)

U.S. Set to Begin a Vast Expansion of DNA Sampling – New York Times – Feb. 5, 2007

Border Policy’s Success Strains Resources – Washington Post – Feb. 2, 2007

Academy reaches around the globe – Los Angeles Times – Jan. 24, 2007

Grupo Fantasma

“Don’t let the fact that you don’t speak Spanish keep you away from Grupo Fantasma’s show. The Austin-based group’s Latin dance/funk/rock/reggae/R&B/Afro-Cuban style translates really well.”  – The Houston Press

Grupo Fantasma

Americans In Waiting: The Lost Story Of Immigration & Citizenship In The United States By Hiroshi Motomura

In Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States, University of North Carolina law professor, Hiroshi Motomura, chronicles America’s history of placing new immigrants on the path to citizenship immediately upon their arrival in the United States. For the first 150 years of our history, our laws bestowed these “Americans in waiting” with a presumed equality that gave them many of the same rights, privileges, and duties as American citizens.

This view of immigration as transition began to erode in the early twentieth century. Ideas of immigration as contract (“the notion that we can achieve fair and just outcomes without equality for noncitizens, as long as we respect other values, such as notice and the protection of expectations”) and immigration as affiliation (“lets lawful immigrants an approximation of equality as they gradually form ties in the United States”) began to take root. Professor Motomura methodically analyzes the overlap and interplay of these three competing perspectives on immigration. He explains how immigration as contract and immigration as affiliation displaced America’s long-held custom of looking upon immigration as a transition to citizenship, leaving us with a democracy in which millions of our permanent residents are governed but have little voice in governing. Professor Motomura concludes that living up to our democratic principles requires that we bring back our country’s lost tradition of treating lawful immigrants like citizens.

Test Your Citizenship Knowledge: Practice Questions – National Public Radio – Nov. 30, 2006

Fast Food Nation Directed By Rickard Linklater, Based On The Book, Fast Food Nation By Eric Schlosser

Halfway through watching Fast Food Nation, a film about the business of America’s fast food industry, you will understand why the film’s opening scene takes place in Mexico.

As our appetite for cheap burgers has skyrocketed in the past few decades so has our need for unskilled workers. The heart of Fast Food Nation traces the story of three undocumented workers from Mexico who land well-paying but dangerous jobs at a meatpacking plant. The movie’s symbolism is obvious: the workers at the plant are treated no better than the meat they are processing.

Although purposefully released to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Upton Sinclair’s, The Jungle, what makes Fast Food Nation truly timely are the raids against six Swift & Co. meatpacking plants on December 12, 2006, the largest immigration raids in American history.

Mother Jones Interview with Rick Linklater

Arrested Immigrants’ Families Struggle in Iowa – National Public Radio – Dec. 18, 2006 (link to audio)

Swift raids slice $30 million, packer says – Denver Post – Jan. 4, 2007

Living Like A Refugee By Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars

After fleeing Sierra Leone and its brutal decade-long civil war, the members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars came together at a refugee camp in neighboring Guinea. Playing worn-out instruments but singing with spirit and cheer, it was at the refugee camp where the band members recorded their earliest songs, several of which are included on their debut album,Living Like a Refugee.

Infectious and uplifting, the music of the Refugee All Stars blends traditional and West African rhythms with reggae and pop. And while the songs are about war, grief, and the hardship of living in a refugee camp, the lyrics are full of hope and optimism. As New York Times critic, Stephen Holden wrote, “As harrowing as these personal tales may be, the music buoying them is uplifting. The cliché bears repeating: music heals and creates community.”

Living Like a Refugee was recorded between August 2002 and October 2005, during production of the documentary, The Refugee All Stars. Since the album’s release, the band has toured the world, beginning with their first-ever live show in the United States at the 2006 SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas.

Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars – MySpace page

National Public Radio – Refugee All Stars: Music Born in Strife (link to audio) – UN Refugee Agency