Decriminalizing illegal immigration: Immigrants' rights through the documentary lens

Anne Teresa Demo

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Scopus citations


The first documentary to address the issue of illegal immigration aired in 1976 on KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. The Unwanted earned three regional Emmys including awards for best writing and best current affairs special. In 1997, the documentary was rereleased by the National Latino Communications Center and described by LA Weekly as a "haunting time capsule that reminds us of the same problems we face today" (qtd. on back cover of The Unwanted). Although the problems depicted in the documentary continue to be relevant, the film's tone and perspective on illegal immigration would be jarring to contemporary viewers acculturated to cable and network news coverage of the issue. In comparison to the demonization of unauthorized immigrants in shows like Lou Dobbs Tonight and the adulation of border patrol agents in series like the National Geographic Channel's Border Wars, the KNBC documentary (produced by José Luis Ruiz and written by Frank del Olmo) revealed both the frustration of immigration agents and humiliation of undocumented immigrants. This narrative balance is reflected in the documentary's closing argument: "Neither of the two main characters in this drama, the illegal alien or the immigration officer, is a villain or a hero. They are both victims. Trapped in a system that does not work and they are trying to make the best of an impossible situation." Whereas The Unwanted was unique in its balanced indictment of border control policy in the 1970s, the documentaries on illegal immigration produced since 2000 attempt to counterbalance the exclusionary discourse that defines contemporary mainstream cable and broadcast media outlets. As this chapter will show, these documentaries reveal an emerging pattern of representation that seeks to decriminalize unauthorized immigrants and challenge the border as the exclusive site for negotiating the relationship between illegal immigration and civic identity, thus suggesting a potential turning point in border rhetorics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationBorder Rhetorics
Subtitle of host publicationCitizenship and Identity on the US-Mexico Frontier
PublisherUniversity of Alabama Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9780817386054
ISBN (Print)9780817357160
StatePublished - 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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