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Movie Review: A Better Life - Part 1

This is the first part of a two-part review. This first part of the movie review focuses on the background issue. The second part focuses on the movie itself.
A Better Life is probably one of the better movies of 2011. It has excellent acting for an excellent story, covering the range of human emotion and experience without an unrealistically tragic or idealistic resolution. But above all, it handles a charged political issue (illegal immigration in the United States) from a decidedly apolitical perspective.

I am keenly interested in the illegal immigration issue because my wife is both Mexican and documented (and has always been documented and is now a citizen; what can I say, we both grew up in privilege). Because of her nationality, and because we both speak Spanish, we have many Hispanic friends, a majority of whom are probably undocumented immigrants. My issue with the illegal immigration issue, however, is that people on either side tend to be blind to valid arguments of the other.

On the one hand, many people tend to want to absolve the undocumented of all responsibility for having broken the law. These people tend to treat undocumented as mere victims--victims of an uncaring American society and of a broken immigration system. I have even seen Hispanic periodicals that go so far as to try to compare the plight of undocumented immigrants to the Holocaust. A bit hyperbolic, especially this week.

On the other hand, many other people tend to regard undocumented immigrants as feckless criminals. These people may really look down on the undocumented, perhaps even with a trace of racism, and see no solution but to deport them or at least crack down on them as rigorously as possible under current immigration laws.

In reality, and to speak in generalities of a typical” undocumented immigrant: any undocumented person has technically broken the law. But it may have been an unwitting offense. But continuing to reside illegally is not an unwitting offense. But the person is not homicidal or criminal in any way. But the person does create a certain burden for society. But the person also contributes to society. But the person does not have any recognized rights. But the person is a human and should be treated humanely. But . . . what do we do?

The two key moral issues are rule of law and gravity of offense. In regard to the rule of law, any country needs to do its best to enforce laws (not look the other way when confronted with offenses). And any country should also revise its unjust, inefficient, or outdated laws.

In regard to the gravity of the offense, there is a qualitative difference between an offense that per se violates both human law and divine law (e.g., murder) and an offense that violates only human law (e.g., illegal immigration). The latter might possibly be still immoral if it is an unqualified breaking of God’s directive to submit to the structures of human society. But the act per se is not evil.

This movie shows all of these tensions. No one is entirely right or wrong. Such is the result of imperfect human systems of government. And yet the movie never makes itself just about the plight of undocumented immigrants or the justice of the U.S. government. And for that, it is a success.


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