When you’re watching dangerous stunts on TV, there is usually a warning that the viewer should “not try this at home.” I’d like to think of this post as a warning to foreign nationals (and Americans, for that matter) that certain movies do not realistically depict immigration situations. By all means watch these films for their dramatic plots, intrigue, romantic moments, and even comedic value, but do not rely on them for learning how the US immigration system works. We have provided grades, not for the quality of the movie but for how well they manage the immigration facts.
1. Green Card (1990)
This Golden Globe-winning and Academy Award-nominated film follows an American woman, Brontë (Andie MacDowell), who agrees to marry French national, Georges (Gerard Depardieu), so he may obtain a Green Card and she may obtain an apartment that is meant for a married couple. This film may have won prestigious awards, but I am pretty sure US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) would have a few things to say about the immigration process portrayed in this movie. Written, produced, and directed by Australian Peter Weir, there are so many immigration inaccuracies (and even illegalities) in the movie that we could spend a whole post just talking about it.
For example, the lengthy marriage-based Green Card application, including all the forms and evidence documenting their life together, is not even mentioned. More glaringly, INS (what USCIS was called formerly) contacts the fake couple to set up an interview in “their” apartment, which while charming, would never happen. INS sets up a second interview at their offices—where such interviews normally take place—and while there may be an occasion when the couple is separated and asked personal questions, the questions in the movie are inaccurate. Rest assured, applicants don’t need to memorize the name of their spouses’ face creams. Also if the case is denied, the spouse may have a chance to present the case before an immigration judge rather than be carted off to the airport immediately. D+
2. The Proposal (2009)
This movie is worth seeing for Ryan Reynolds' abs alone (and Sandra Bullock’s handbags!), but it is not safe from immigration law film fails. Bullock’s character (Margaret Tate) is a career-driven, high-powered editor from Canada who works at a prestigious New York publishing house. When her boss tells her that her “visa” expired and she is to be deported back to Canada, to keep her job she tells him that she is getting married to Reynolds’ character. At this point, this film fails its immigration tests on many levels. First, as a Canadian it is unlikely that she had an actual visa stamp even though she may have been the beneficiary of a sponsored visa petition filed by her employer. Second, how did things escalate so quickly that she is being deported? Perhaps they meant her status expired and she cannot work in the company anymore? Even if her immigration status was expiring, why wasn’t it renewed? If the deadline was missed, there may still be a chance to file a petition explaining the circumstances for why a deadline was missed.
Nonetheless, Margaret determines the quickest solution is to marry a US citizen and apply for a Green Card. In reality though, even if this was a real marriage, it would still take months to get work authorization, so it’s not really an immediate fix. More obviously wrong and far-fetched is when the immigration officer travels to distant Alaska (where Reynold’s character is from) following the couple to do an at “home check” to see if they are an actual couple. This is not even close to being a real thing. While these fails do not detract (for most people) from the entertaining (did I mention the abs?) and funny film, this is definitely not a film to study for how the US immigration system works. D+
3. Like Crazy (2011)
Love story. London. Los Angeles. Immigration issues. This film is right up my alley. When I first started at DLG, I demanded we see this film as a group outing. Immediately upon leaving the theater with a bunch of immigration attorneys and paralegals, it was clear that they got only a few things right including conveying the anxiety that most foreign nationals experience as they navigate the immigration process. The film stars the late Anton Yelchin, who tragically passed away recently, as Jacob, an American, and Felicity Jones as Anna, a Brit, who fall in love while both are attending school in Los Angeles. Upon graduation, Anna makes the decision to overstay her student visa. This is where the film starts to get things wrong. Students while allowed to stay for as long as they are enrolled in school and sometimes for practical training do not have a date written in their passports past which they cannot stay. So “overstaying” is not correct.
After spending the summer in Los Angeles, and supposedly “overstaying” her visa, Anna returns to the UK for a family event. When she tries to return to the US, she is detained at the airport, refused entry to the US, and ordered back to the UK. Thus begins years of trying to sort out the consequences of the “overstay.” Finally, Jacob and Felicity decide to marry in the UK and apply for a marriage-based Green Card, which is denied—the reasons for the denial are also questionable. Curiously they attend a meeting at the US Embassy in an office! For anyone who has ever been to the US Embassy in London, they will know that all interviews are conducted at bank-teller like windows. Thereafter, seemingly out of nowhere, Anna is given a visa (nonimmigrant? Immigrant? Hard to tell…) and heads back to the US to be with Jacob. But simply put: things are just not the same between them. Like Crazy was reportedly filmed without a script, which may explain why there are so many immigration inaccuracies. C+ (for effort)
4. Coming to America (1988)
This classic comedy, starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, is truly a masterpiece (even with immigration inaccuracies). Eddie stars as Akeem, the heir to the throne of Zumanda. Tired of having everything handed to him on a silver platter, Akeem escapes to America, specifically to Queens, to find some independence and an intelligent woman who truly loves him. While in the US, Akeem poses as a foreign student. Does he have an F-1 visa? Nope. He also works at McDowell’s, a fictional fast food restaurant resembling a certain famous franchise. Does he have work authorization? Again, no indication. As much fun as it would be to escape royal life in Africa, one cannot just decide to come to the US and pose as a student. Perhaps he could have secured a diplomat visa before arriving, but is this really considered official business? D-
5. The Terminal (2004)
Starring Tom Hanks as Viktor, a citizen of the fictitious nation of Krakozhia, this film follows Viktor’s life as he is trapped at JFK Airport. While flying to the US, his home country undergoes a coup and upon arrival he is told that his passport is no longer valid. Without a passport, he is also unable to return to Krakozhia. Thus, he is stranded at JFK Airport for the foreseeable future in immigration limbo. He is not detained within the confines of the Custom and Border Protection’s offices, but rather he is allowed to roam freely in the international terminal. Oh, ok. That makes total sense… (pick up the sarcasm). Long story short, a friend of Viktor’s calls in a favor and gets him an “emergency” visa. What is this unicorn visa? Hard to say really, but possibly humanitarian parole, which is generally reserved for much more severe situations. As Ashley points out when she reviewed this film, it’s certainly entertaining (who doesn’t love Tom Hanks?), but it forces the immigration-savvy viewer to suspend belief in a major way. D-
6. In America (2002)
This film starts almost instantly with immigration errors. An Irish family of four enters the US via Canada. The father tells his kids to say they are visiting for vacation, but in reality, they have no intention of leaving as he is trying to become an actor in New York. (Why does every film portray people breaking immigration laws?) It’s extremely unlikely that an Irish family entering the US from Canada with a station wagon packed with their life’s possessions would be granted entrance into the US as temporary visitors. While Ireland is included in the Visa Waiver Program, it’s not a magical program that allows anyone to enter without any paperwork and for any reason. As poor as the immigration portion of this film is, it is actually quite a beautiful story of grief, happiness, love, friendship, and the immigrant experience, and I highly recommend this film. B (for accurately conveying how immigrants enter the US illegally)
7. The Jackal (1997)
This ‘90s action flick ranks among the most absurd plotlines of any ‘90s action flicks with an inaccurate immigration twist to top things off. Bruce Willis stars as an enigmatic assassin and master of disguise (known simply by his pseudonym the Jackal) who is hired by an Azerbaijani mob boss seeking revenge for his murdered brother. In order to carry out a hit, and upon discovering that the FBI are onto him, the Jackal travels to Montreal where he hires gunsmith Ian Lamont, played by Jack Black, to build and design a mounted heavy machine gun he needs for an assassination. The Jackal needs to smuggle this illegal weapon into the US. (Please note: never smuggle weapons into the US.) To do so without being detected, the Jackal loads his one-of-kind machine gun into the boom of a yacht. He departs from the shores of Lake Huron and uses his yacht as a disguise to mix in with other yachts that are sailing down Lake Michigan in order go undetected by Immigration, entering the country illegally. This is fun in the ‘90s movies kind of way, but highly unlikely to happen. D-
8. The Visitor (2007)
The Visitor tells the story of a grumpy older widower, Walter (Richard Jenkins), who returns to his apartment in NYC after an absence to discover two undocumented immigrants, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), living there. Despite Walter’s negative attitude, they all quickly bond and develop a friendship. Walter lets them remain in the apartment because they shake him out of his boring routine. Walter develops a fondness for the couple. Before long, Tarek is arrested in the subway and when his lack of immigration status is discovered, he is ordered deported. While in detention, Walter visits Tarek and attempts to lift his spirits, which proves to be a difficult task. As viewers, we are not given much context to Tarek’s immigration situation, and while the movie does try to realistically portray the precarious existence of undocumented immigrants in the US, there were certainly some legal options Tarek could have explored even while in ICE custody before returning to his home country. B
9. Babel (2006)
This Academy Award-winning film covers four overlapping storylines, including that of a Mexican nanny who cares for two young American children. When the children’s father calls and demands the nanny stay longer than expected, she reminds him that she has to go to Mexico, but he insists she stay and hangs up on her. Unable to miss her son’s wedding in Mexico, the nanny takes the kids with her. The trouble begins on their way back into the US. When they are all asked to pull into secondary inspection the driver of the car (the nanny’s nephew) speeds off from the immigration inspection site. The nephew drops the nanny and the kids off in the middle of the desert, where they sleep and try to find help the next day. The nanny finds an immigration officer who criticizes the nanny for her handling of the situation and orders her to be deported without examining her immigration documentation. She has not been charged and convicted of a crime. What are the grounds for deportation? This misrepresents the immigration process and checks at the border. C
10. An American Tail (1986)
Sorry Fievel, mice cannot immigrate to the US unless they follow the guidelines to enter as pets. My colleague Liz has more information about what animals may come to the US. D