Thursday, July 07, 2016

Review: "14: Dred Scott, Wong Kim Ark & Vanessa Lopez" Directed by Anne Galisky

Updated February 26, 2017: The film is now available for streaming.

Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution reads as follows:

My layman's summary of this Section is that it established birthright citizenship and forbade states from depriving persons in the United States of their Federally established rights without due process.

Even though it was proposed in 1866 and ratified July 28, 1868, it took time for the full implications of this amendment to impact life for non-whites in the United States. And, even today, some want to restrict birthright citizenship to children whose parents are US citizens or permanent residents.

The documentary film 14 introduces us to the family of Vanessa Lopez, a child who is a U.S. citizen by birth and whose mother and grandparents are undocumented. Her mother decided to publicly announce her undocumented status in direct actions demanding comprehensive immigration reform, which typically means a reasonable pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States.

The film does a great job portraying the impact of an undocumented status in the United States: weak bargaining position with exploitative employers, restricted access to education and inability to access public services such as police. Yet, from Vanessa's perspective, we see that the greatest impact is the constant fear that her family will be torn apart by deportation proceedings.

The film also does a great job introducing the case of Dred and Harriet Scott, who were enslaved in the Missouri Territory. Although a territorial court agreed with their claim that they were free, upon appeal the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that, among other things, as descendants of Africans, they did not have standing to sue for their freedom. In other words, all black people in the United States and its territories could be stripped of any right at any time because they were not truly citizens. The voice of one of Dred and Harriet Scott's descendants narrates many of the images in this section of the film.

The United States passed the 14th Amendment to establish that the slaves freed by the 13th Amendment and those slaves who had already won their freedom and all of their descendants would all be citizens. The 14th Amendment directly addressed the Supreme Court's ruling in the Dred Scott case.

Yet, since the United States has always been built on white supremacy, discriminatory policies persisted. The film uses the case of Wong Kim Ark, born in California of Chinese ancestry, to demonstrate how the Supreme Court affirmed that the 14th Amendment really meant that all people born in the United States were citizens, even if they weren't of European descent. This part of the film has moving interviews with historians and a descendant of Wong Kim Ark, shot in the Angel Island immigration detention center.

The film is technically excellent, but I wonder if it works in its attempt simultaneously to advocate for pathway to citizenship and to protect birthright citizenship. Some of the human rights advocates interviewed in the movie make the case that the same instinct to restrict privileges to sub-categories of our nation's inhabitants animate those opposed to both comprehensive immigration reform and birthright citizenship, but there's no clear legal argument presented to say that, because Vanessa is a citizen, her mother and grandparents should have a pathway to citizenship or even legal status. Of course, by showing them together as a family, the film makes the moral argument that they should stay together.

I also wish the film had actually taken the time to point out the tremendous benefits of birthright citizenship by comparing it to jus sanguinis, or citizenship by blood, which is how most of Eurasia ("the Old World") determines citizenship. For example, many born in Germany never become German citizens. Think about countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, where foreign workers nearly outnumber citizens, yet there is no process by which those workers or their children could ever become citizens. Isn't it obvious why these countries can never gain in power?

Another possible comparison the film might have made is with Israel. Its immigration policy is like that of the pre-14th Amendment United States, only for Jews instead of whites.

On the other hand, I can see why the filmmakers chose the approach of emotional appeal through Vanessa's family and an appeal to the idea that the United States has grown/is growing out of its white supremacist roots. Many advocates of comprehensive immigration reform have spent years producing reports demonstrating the economic and social benefits of a liberal immigration policy. But, in the age of Fox News and in the wake of Brexit, we all know now that facts don't move voters.

I strongly recommend this film for all activists in promotion of comprehensive immigration reform and in educating the public about the amazing gift of birthright citizenship. Consider holding a public event in your city.

The DVD includes English and Spanish subtitles, an extra feature on the Missouri archives and an extra feature on Angel Island.

Here's the film's trailer.
14: Dred Scott, Wong Kim Ark & Vanessa Lopez - OFFICIAL TRAILER from 14 The Movie on Vimeo.

Listen to an interview with the film's director, Anne Galisky.
Also, be on the lookout for the film All Quiet on the Home Front, the story of Bhagat Singh Thind's attempted deportation by the US government.

Updated July 14, 2016. Read this piece by Ms. Milca Kouame, whose father was deported when she was 7 years old.

Updated February 26, 2017. Canada doesn't have this amazing gift of birthright citizenship. Sometimes knowing how unique something is helps us appreciate it more. I hope so.
Read the 2015 Center for American Progress report Turning Our Back on the 14th Amendment. Updated 2019-May-30: Listen to In the Past Lane podcast featuring Martha S. Jones, author of Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.