FILM REVIEW: The Visitor

by Jacki Granet

The Visitor, a 2007 film written and directed by Thomas McCarthy, begins with Walter, a college professor in Connecticut, working through the mundane tasks of his everyday life. He is again teaching the economics course he has taught for many years, never updating the material or injecting any enthusiasm. He wakes up, lectures, goes home, and then does it again the next day. Without any real skill or passion, he spends his free time attempting to learn piano. When a faculty member tells Walter that he must attend a conference in New York City, he doesn’t want to go, but he does not have a choice. A few days later, he finds himself back in the city at an apartment he owns but rarely visits.

There we meet the other two main characters in this film, Tarek and Zainab, a couple who have been living in Walter’s apartment under the assumption that they were renting it from a friend. Walter, not exactly sweet, but sometimes understanding, allows them to continue to stay in his apartment until they find a new place. What transpires is possibly the last thing Walter could have ever predicted: Tarek and Zainab befriend him and bring back a spark in his life that has been presumably missing since the death of his wife.

Tarek teaches Walter how to play the African drum; Zainab cooks dinner for the three of them. Before long they are moving more or less in sync with one another. That, however, comes to an end when, after getting stuck in a subway turnstile, believing he has paid, Tarek slides through and is promptly arrested by undercover cops. The exact circumstances surrounding Tarek’s arrest are not made entirely clear. Tarek shows them his ID, and with only the sound of the subway in the background, they arrest Tarek and take him away. Walter tries in vain to help but Tarek is gone. When Walter arrives home and tells Zainab the news, a look of terror crosses her face. Unbeknownst to Walter, both Tarek and Zainab are undocumented immigrants and thus Tarek’s arrest has additional implications. Indeed, Zainab tells Walter that she had been in detention when she first arrived in the United States, but the facility closed and they released some of the women being held there. By the look on her face, it was obvious that she feared Tarek would end up in such a facility.

Throughout the film, we are given sparse clues about Tarek’s immigration issues. We learn he is from Syria, a country he left nearly nine years ago. We learn that Tarek’s father was a journalist who was killed for writing an unauthorized article. At that point, Tarek and his mother, Mouna, left the country out of fear for their safety. After their application for asylum in the United States was denied, they attended their deportation hearing. It is possible Tarek may have received a final order of deportation but his exact position in the immigration system is unclear. Walter is now deeply involved in the lives of his new friends and he also takes Tarek’s mother into his home. As Mouna and Walter attempt to find Tarek and get him released, they also develop a close friendship. A lawyer, hired by Walter, discovers there is a final order of removal for Tarek and he was sent a letter ordering him to report to an immigration office to be processed for deportation, commonly known as a “bag and baggage” letter. At first, Tarek’s mother, Mouna, denies receiving the letter but it is in the final moments before she leaves the country she calls home and Walter--the man she has grown to love--that Mouna admits that she threw away the letter when she received it. From a legal standpoint, it was the failure to appear for a bag and baggage letter that made Tarek a “fugitive” for immigration purposes and subject to detention and summary removal once he was turned over to ICE. 

Produced by Participant Media, a production company that prides itself on making socially relevant films, The Visitor sheds light on numerous immigration issues, most notably the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention system. Tarek ends up at a windowless detention center in a warehouse-filled area of Queens, and a good part of the remaining film takes place in the detention center’s visiting room. According to statistics provided by the Department of Homeland Security, ICE was holding 429,000 detainees as of 2011. In the New York area, many of these detainees are housed in local jails in New Jersey (indeed, there are no longer any ICE detention centers in New York City). In recent years, much has been written about the conditions of immigrant detention. In fact, the director Thomas McCarthy said “he started with two characters and then developed the story after reading about immigration detention centers.” An expose written by Nina Bernstein in The New York Times entitled “Officials Hid Truth of Immigrant Deaths in Jail” revealed poor treatment that undocumented foreign nationals face. Ms. Bernstein wrote of one instance:

In another case that year, investigators from the agency’s Office of Professional Responsibility concluded that unbearable, untreated pain had bee a significant factor in the suicide of a 22-year-old detainee at the Bergen Country Jail in New Jersey, and that the medical unit was so poorly run that other detainees were at risk.

While this may seem on the extreme end of the spectrum, it does bring to light the conditions of confinement in which non-criminal immigrant detainees are held. It is not too much to ask that every detainee be treated with dignity and given basic levels of health care. As Tarek states, there are no windows in the facilities, visits are conducted with a glass partition, and the ability to talk to someone with actual knowledge of a foreign national’s case can be quite difficult. Just recently in August 2013, three ICE facilities suspended visitation, some say in an effort to silence advocates writing about poor conditions.

The film does a great job of portraying frustration and issues surrounding the ICE detention center.  Zainab cannot enter the facility to see Tarek, for fear of being detained herself. The same holds true for Tarek’s mother Mouna, who flies in from Michigan after not hearing from her son for a few days. It is up to Walter to maintain contact. On his first trip to the center, Walter stands behind a man who is yelling at the guard for not being able to see his loved one or even being told if he is there. A short time later, Walter will become that person.

Did Tarek (note: spoiler alert) have any legal options to fight his deportation? It’s impossible to say with certainty as pertinent details are not revealed in the film. Could Tarek have had the opportunity to request a second look at his denied asylum claim?  Would the deportation officer assigned to his case be willing to arrange a reasonable fear interview to determine whether he would be subject to severe persecution or torture if his removal order were executed? Could Tarek have had the opportunity to meet with an attorney to see if there was a basis to challenge the fugitive warrant (i.e., if the bag and baggage went to an address other than that on file) or the underlying removal order? The bigger theme may be that even if there were viable options the lawyer could have pursued, Tarek may well have declined to remain detained for the months and months it would have taken to get him released, let alone win the case. This is a common issue, as ICE detainees often don’t pursue legal options simply because they’re incarcerated. Rather than fighting for their rights in what could be an expensive long-drawn out process, they understandably would rather give up and go home because that is the fastest way to get out of jail. As the film so powerfully demonstrates, given the dismal and depressing conditions at the detention center, this is not surprising.

This film was released not only for entertainment purposes, although it is quite mesmerizing and poignant on this level, but also as a platform to discuss important immigration issues. Amnesty International and Take Part both launched social action campaigns in conjunction with the film’s release to bring awareness to immigration and deportation issues.

So what can be done? The most recent immigration reform bill (as discussed by Protima Daryanani) would potentially provide undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship—a path that perhaps would have helped Zainab, Tarek, and Mouna.