Although awards season for film and television is over with the Academy Awards show last weekend, there is still much buzz surrounding the fantastic and diverse films that were released in the past year. With all of the excitement, I am inspired to reminisce about my own favorite films—and influenced by my profession–specifically my favorite immigration film: The Terminal.
Produced by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, the film was released in 2004 to great critical acclaim. Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) is a citizen of the fictional Republick of Krakozhia who faces an identity crisis when his country undergoes a military coup while he is in transit to the US. The coup occurs while he is in the air and upon arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York, he is told he cannot be admitted to the US because his passport is no longer considered valid; however, he cannot leave the airport for the same reason. Thus, his residence in JFK airport commences. This comedic film finds Navorski facing off with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) who find him an annoying glitch in the system, which they want to solve but cannot control. All the while, he endears himself to the airport staff and an airline flight attendant (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who is very wrapped up in her own affairs.
I love this movie for several reasons. First, I have to admit, I am a big Tom Hanks fan! When I watch his films, I truly forget he is the actor on the screen–all I see is the character. Navorski is an endearing character, hapless in some ways, and uncannily intelligent in other ways. The film also handles serious and sensitive topics with sense of humor without making too light of them. Ultimately the film leaves you with an uplifting feeling, and who doesn’t love that?
CBP, and specifically the Director of CBP at JFK (Stanley Tucci), play a leading role in this movie from the beginning. Upon Navorski’s arrival at JFK, the director meets with him to try to explain the circumstances. His explanations are met with minimal understanding due to the lack of an available translator, which leads to the director simplifying to tell Navorski that he is a “citizen of nowhere.”
Because of the coup, the US Department of State revoked his visa to the US. This takes away his legal right to enter the US. He tells Navorski that he can’t get into the US without a visa, can’t get a visa without a passport, and can’t get a passport without a country. The director rattles off other potential ways to allow Navorski into the US, but eliminates his eligibility for them all: asylum, refugee status, TPS, humanitarian parole, nonimmigrant visa, or diplomatic status. The director tells Navorski that at this time he is “simply unacceptable.”
At the same time Navorski has no legal right to enter the US, CBP has no legal right to detain him. Therefore the director turns him loose in the international transit lounge with a handful of food vouchers, a prepaid calling card, an ID badge to get him back into CBP, a pager, and the understanding that “America is closed.” As Navorski becomes an established presence in the airport, the director finds him to be an annoyance in the face of his immediate career aspirations—to become CBP Field Commissioner. The director fears having Navorski living in JFK will ruin his chance of receiving the promotion and thus comes up with several unconventional schemes to try to get Navorski out of JFK.
At first, the director’s strategy is a waiting game—he figures Navorski will run out of patience and food and make a break for it, entering the US without documentation. After losing his food vouchers, Navorski figures out how to make money by collecting quarters after returning luggage carts. The director thwarts this by hiring a CBP employee to return luggage carts, speeding along Navorski’s path to hunger. He states he is waiting for Navorski to “barrel through doors, breaking section 214.” This refers to Section 214 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), containing the laws pertaining to the admission of nonimmigrants. When his first strategy fails, the director tries an alternate approach by informing Navorski that for one day only, the airport exits will be unguarded during a guard change, indirectly suggesting that he should sneak out. Navorski’s conscience gets the best of him, however, and he doesn’t take the opportunity, perplexing the director.
Next, the director meets with Navorski to suggest that he may have an asylum claim; the director tells him that he can go to New York if he can establish a credible fear, and it "doesn't matter of what." The director explains it will take up to six months to see a judge, and that most people don't ever appear before the judge, again indirectly suggesting a way to work the system. Navorski repeatedly denies being afraid of returning to his country, however, to the chagrin of the director. When Navorski realizes that he hasn’t said the right thing to be admitted to New York, he offers in desperation, "I am afraid from ghosts, Dracula, wolf mans, sharks…"
While the director’s antics to rid himself of Navorski may elicit a laugh from viewers, generally they do not accurately represent how CBP and immigration operate. In the film, the humorous actions of the director are unethical; he considers Navorski an inconvenience and tries to pass the buck to make him someone else’s problem by enticing Navorski into breaking the immigration regulations to his detriment by either entering the US illegally or lying to apply for an immigration benefit. Of particular note, it’s true that filing a frivolous asylum application has extremely severe consequences—potentially barring the applicant from seeking any future US immigration benefit.
Towards the end of the film, Navorski actually lends a hand to CBP when they are in a tough situation, which again is highly unlikely to happen. The director calls him in to act as a translator to a distraught man trying to take medication out of the US. Navorski explains the man is trying to bring medicine to his dying father, and the director tells the man he has to forfeit it because he does not have the correct paperwork. Navorski thereafter infuriates the director by claiming he made a translation mistake and that the medicine is actually for the man’s dying goat–which would fall into a loophole allowing the man to take the drugs out of the US. The director explodes in a fit of anger and accuses Navorski of lying for this man based on the knowledge he has gained from memorizing the CBP forms he reads when he applies for admission to the US on a daily basis.
At the end of the film, the coup in Krakhozia ends and Navorski’s flight attendant love interest is able to get him a one-day emergency travel visa from her friend in Washington. Unfortunately, Navorski must get it signed by the supervising officer–the Director of CBP–in order to validate it. Out of spite, the director won't sign. While no specifics about this foiled “visa” are given in the film, our educated guess is that the favor called into Washington was to secure humanitarian parole for Navorski. Humanitarian parole is used sparingly to bring someone who is otherwise inadmissible into the US for a temporary time period due to a compelling emergency. In reality, this benefit is reserved for severe circumstances and Navorski’s desire to visit New York wouldn’t have made him a candidate.
In the face of the director’s refusal to sign the “visa,” Navorski is on the verge of accepting that he will need to board the next flight back to Krakhozia, when a pep talk from his airport friends inspires him to refuses to give up on his special personal mission of visiting New York. Navorski marches up to the airport exit doors, where the director is one step ahead of him and has already amassed a wall of CBP officers. The CBP officer he has become friends with during his residency at JFK steps aside to let him out the front door anyways and Navorski’s sense of duty to his personal mission overwhelms his up-to-this-point unfailing moral compass which had stopped him from leaving the airport previously. He seizes the opportunity, hails a taxi, and is off to fulfill his purpose of traveling to New York!
Not to ruin the uplifting ending of the film, but Navorski’s entry to the US by walking through the airport doors without having been inspected and admitted to the US in a lawful status could trigger potentially serious consequences for him in the future if he ever wanted to visit the US again. Not to mention the CBP officer who waived him through would likely face discipline for his actions. The filmmakers, however, ended this movie at an opportune moment to preserve the uplifting spirit of the film!
This story was inspired by the true story of Mehran Nasseri, who lived at Terminal One in Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris, France from August 1988 to July 2006. An Iranian political refugee, Nasser became stuck when his refugee certification documents were stolen from him in France, en route from Belgium to England. Without the papers he was unable to enter England; Belgium did not permit refugees to return once they had left the country; and France would not allow him to stay because he could not prove his identity. Several documentaries and fictions have been based on Nasser's story, and he published an autobiography, The Terminal Man, co-written by British author Andrew Donkin.
I highly recommend The Terminal not only as a movie with a strong immigration theme (however inaccurate in parts), but as an overall excellent heartfelt comedy. Despite the many facts of the plot I disclosed in this post, I think you will discover many more details in the movie that will surprise you and endear you to this movie and its characters. So pop some popcorn, cue the Netflix, and give The Terminal a watch!