Guest Blog: "Objection! (To Wearing Suits, Growing Up, and Immigration Law in TV and Film)"

[Blogger's note: Today's post comes from the prolific keyboard of Nici Kersey, a friend and colleague whom I number among the best in I-9 and E-Verify compliance issues. She writes about our shared reluctance to grow up (as I write this, I'm singing my anthem -- a certain song from the musical, Peter Pan) and our mutual antipathy to phony depictions of immigration law in cinema and television. For me, my favorite immigration shows are the original Superman,My Favorite Martian, and Mork and Mindy. As for film, I've blogged before on its ability to influence the immigration debate. But enough of me. HEEEEEEEERE'S NICI!]

When I put on a suit, I feel like I’m pretending to be a grown up. My husband keeps reminding me that we are “getting older” (well, duh). My friends say that my evolving taste for nonfiction (I’ve always read fiction, leaning toward young adult novels) can be attributed to my advancing age. And I generally have no idea what my 13-year-old stepdaughter is talking about.

I’ve been married for 11 years; my ten-year college reunion was ages ago; and the lady at the cosmetics counter has started recommending anti-aging moisturizers. My daughter will turn three in August. I own my own business. I still don’t feel like a “real” grown up.

I’ve been an attorney for six years now, but I don’t feel like an attorney – or at least not the way I always imagined being an attorney might feel. I don’t feel important; I don’t like carrying a briefcase; and I have never yelled “objection!” in court. I am desperate to use puppets in my I-9 training.

I’ll be honest; I feel most like an attorney when I’m watching TV. I think “this must be what doctors feel like when they watch Grey’s Anatomy.” (Yes, doctor friends, I think you sit around watching ER andNurse Jackie, noting the gross inaccuracies.)

Brothers and Sisters was, for the first several seasons, a favorite show of mine. But then in the fourth season Sarah Walker’s French fiancée, Luc, whose visa was running out, suddenly won the green card lottery. In the show, this meant that an envelope appeared in the mailbox one day, and inside that envelope was a green card. Problem solved. “Objection!” I shouted at the television. What crap. He may as well have won it via a scratch-off ticket he bought on a whim at the gas station.

In Green Card, then-INS officers more-or-less stalk a couple who have committed fraud by marrying solely to obtain a green card (they, of course, fall in love “for reals” in the process). Despite their newfound love for one another, Gerrard Depardieu’s character is deported – not because the marriage was entered into for the purpose of committing immigration fraud – but because he cannot remember the name of his wife’s face cream. I can barely remember the name of my own (anti-aging) face cream.

One of the worst offenders is The Proposal, which boasts a cast including Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, and Betty White. What was the most unbelievable part of this movie? The fact that I have now seen it twice, having apparently developed amnesia after the first go-round. In this flick, Sandra Bullock’s character forces her assistant, who has dubbed her “Satan’s Mistress,” to marry her to avoid being deported after the application to renew her visa is denied.

Let’s pretend for a moment that denial of the extension petition would cause deportation proceedings to begin right away (as The Proposal suggests). What happens next is extraordinary: the new couple (formed moments before) walks into the local USCIS office, cuts to the front of the line, and asks to file a fiancée visa petition. It’s not possible to just walk into the USCIS office (you have to have an appointment, and you have to go through security, and then you have to wait, and wait, and wait). It’s also kinda difficult (read: pretty much impossible) to file a fiancée visa petition while you’re in the U.S., and even more difficult to file pretty much anything in person.

The two are immediately granted an interview with a USCIS officer. [Objection! Objection! Objection!] From there, the movie is similar to Green Card, in that the main characters fall for one another (though in this movie, the development of these new feelings is harder to believe than in Green Card). Their newfound love develops after flying from NYC to Alaska, and the USCIS officer who interviewed themfollows them and attends their (impromptu) wedding. Ah, yes – that’s how it’s done. (Cough.) I’ll try not to ruin the end for anyone who still wants to see it after this glowing review, but I will say that the magic solution here is even more unbelievable than in Green Card; at least in Green Card, the guy gets deported.

The Terminalis underrated; I like this one. And the whole premise seemed unrealistic until the past month. A man (Tom Hanks) boards a plane to the U.S. and, while in flight, a coup in his country results in revocation of his visa and voids his passport, making it impossible for him to enter the U.S. or return to his home country. Tom Hanks’s character ends up living in the international terminal at JFK. Fantasy? Well, sure, immigration officials don’t usually just let you wander out of customs if you’re not admissible to the U.S., and security might typically take issue if you start ripping things out of electrical panels, or maybe keep you from living in part of the terminal that is under construction. But I certainly hope that Edward Snowden studied this film before hopping a plane to Russia.

Much could be said about the episodes at the end of the first season and beginning of the second season ofWill and Grace, in which Jack (Sean Hayes) marries Karen’s housekeeper, Rosario (Shelley Morrison) to avoid her deportation. And about Crossing Over, a movie starring Harrison Ford that includes Ray Liottaas a corrupt immigration officer who arranges to trade a green card for sex but (see a pattern?) falls for the woman in the process.

One movie that seems to get it right is The Visitor. If you haven’t seen it, you should. A professor (Richard Jenkins) who keeps, but apparently rarely uses, an apartment in NYC comes into the city to find the apartment occupied by a couple who have rented it from some sort of con man. He decides to share the space with them rather than evict them. Once you accept that, the rest of the movie is pretty faithful to the immigration system, as one half of the couple is arrested, then detained by immigration, at which point he more-or-less disappears into the system, being moved from one facility to another without warning, then deported without notice to his family. This is a lovely, quiet movie about the emotional toll that the system can take.

But The Visitor is the exception to the rule, which seems to be that movies and TV shows must use immigration law badly and only as a device or an obstacle.

Why do TV shows and movies do this? It could be because the writers don’t know better and no one thinks to ask an attorney (or someone who has actually won the green card lottery), but it’s probably because it is rare for real immigration law to translate into good entertainment: it’s slow, and it’s technical. Winning the green card lottery means winning a chance to apply for a green card; the whole process can take more than a year. When the government suspects marriage fraud, it usually starts by requesting piles of documents and conducting an interview; again, we are talking about months and years here, not weeks. And the government doesn’t care if the relationship has grown into a “real” marriage; the question is whether the marriage was entered into for the purpose of fraud.

The show Army Wives had a plot line a couple of years ago that mirrored a case that I was handling. Army Wives did a better job than most of showing how immigration law works, but it had to gloss over some of the technicalities. I talked to an immigration attorney who had consulted with Army Wives on the technical aspects of the law, and she confirmed that the show had to cut things because (1) it would take too long to show how things actually work, (2) most people wouldn’t understand it, and (3) to make people like me feel like attorneys when we watch. Okay, I added that last one.

Real immigration law seems so poorly suited for entertainment that I couldn’t even bring myself to write a whole blog post about immigration law, asking Angelo if I could write a “junk food” version about TV and getting old. Don’t get me wrong; I love immigration law. I love talking about it. I have a blast presenting I-9 training (with or without puppets). But as much as I’d love to star (or even have a bit part) on a TV show, chances are, no one is going to make one about my job any time soon.

And as I have gotten older, I’ve found that most people aren’t dying to hire an attorney who feels important or loves carrying a briefcase. Most don’t want me to yell “Objection!” in court, because they’d prefer to stay out of court. I haven’t yet had a client ask me to make or use puppets, but I have a feeling that training will be more entertaining if it is presented by a furry blue woman with googly eyes. Instead of real (or real-ish) characters’ lives being changed by fake immigration law, I’ll use outlandish characters and apply real immigration law. How about a mash-up of Alf, E.T., and the LGMs from Toy Story as a new, literally green employee (who may or may not try to eat the cat)? That would give a different meaning to the box on the I-9 that says “alien authorized to work” and create opportunities to train about non-discrimination.
Everyone likes a little fantasy. And where immigration law is concerned, fantasy is a key ingredient if you’re trying to create entertainment.

Maybe I hold onto my own fantasy about using puppets in my training to fight the stereotypes (learned from TV and movies) about “important” attorneys and their briefcases. Maybe it is because I am not old. But I have to admit that when my teenage stepdaughter teared up last night at the end of The Proposalbecause it was “just so romantic,” I sure didn’t feel young.