Exile Nation: The Plastic People

The need for a despised underclass of darker-skinned cheap labor has underpinned American prosperity since slavery. A new film looks at the lives of the latest class of disposable “plastic people.” 

Charles Shaw
16 December 2014

Poster design by Daniel Garcia.

When five-year old Jonathan Espinoza emigrated to the United States with his family in 1995, the largest internal migration in Mexican history was underway. Neoliberal ‘reforms’ under the guise of NAFTA (a short-hand for dismantling peasant property rights and selling their lands to multinationals) had displaced millions of people in rural areas towards Mexico City and north to the border, where a thin ribbon of “maquilador” sweatshops separates the US from Mexico like a mechanized Rio Grande of production.

Many of the displaced found work in these sweatshops, while others crossed the border in search of a better life. While the US Government maintains that 11 million of these migrants are still residing in the US illegally, the actual number could be as high as 22 million, according to author Ed Vulliamy in his meticulously researched book, Amexica: War Along the Borderline. Vulliamy calls the experience of NAFTA in Mexico the world’s first “post-political global economy,” a gulag empire of maquiladores and cartels where the value of life is reduced to hourly production quotas and daily turf wars.

It would be difficult to find any parents who would want to raise their children under these conditions, so the Espinoza family crossed over in the first big wave of post-NAFTA immigration and never left. They settled in Monterey, California, and were able to prosper by Mexican standards through a string of cash-based service sector jobs. Like most poor Latino migrants to the United States, the family was slow to assimilate. Jonathan’s parents still don’t speak English beyond a few words and phrases.

A combination of the language barrier, a lack of formal education, and the costly and byzantine nature of US Immigration policy has kept the family in a classification known as “out of status,” shorthand for “illegal” or without a visa. But the Espinozas have spent nearly 20 years in the United States working, paying taxes, putting their two children through school, and spending their hard earned money in the American economy.

However, none of this could stop their son from being deported for life in 2010, when Jonathan was involved in a minor street fight with a former classmate that resulted in his arrest. The fight occurred because Jonathan—a shy boy who was often picked on in school—decided to stand up against a long-time bully by brandishing a small pocketknife in an attempt to scare him off.

As a result, Jonathan was charged with “assault with a deadly weapon” and “street terrorism,” (a post-9/11 designation for threats made in public), topped off with a “gang enhancement—a statutory elevation of severity for criminal offenses for those associated with gang activity.

In fact neither of the boys were gang members, nor had they had any contact with boys who were. Yet because they were Latino, and because this was a time of heightened hysteria about violence in Mexico ‘migrating’ North across the border, the charges were made to stick.

After serving eight months in the Monterey County Jail, Jonathan was loaded onto a bus in shackles and transported 14 hours to Tijuana, where he and busloads of other deportees were unceremoniously deposited into the nighttime terror of one of the most violent cities on the planet. Awaiting him was a Dante-esque world of half-dead addicts, murderous police, and dehumanized poverty on a scale he could never have imagined in his California home.

Jonathan’s story is one of many that make up my new film Exile Nation: The Plastic People, a glimpse into the lives of some of the stateless individuals who are trying to survive in a kind of Neoliberal purgatory that’s not of their making. “Plastic People” is a label that’s sometimes given to Mexicans like Jonathan who were raised in the US and are disconnected from Mexican culture. The word “plastic” denotes both their perceived superficiality and their disposable nature.

How did things get to such a point? After 9/11, the US-Mexico border virtually slammed shut when the US passed the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002, and embarked on a program of mass-deportation. Local police forces were linked to a new immigration database via the US government’s “Secure Communities Initiative.”  As a result, an estimated six million Latinos have been summarily deported for anything from receiving a traffic ticket to First Degree Murder.

It wasn’t until a quartet of DePaul University professors published a book called Living Illegal: The Human Face of Unauthorized Immigration in late 2012 that the Obama Administration was forced to acknowledge the tragic side effects of its hard-line approach to immigration policy. The book advocates for a group of Latino immigrants who matriculated at DePaul and were subsequently deported.

Under intense pressure from Latino advocacy groups, and faced with a group of immigrant children with impeccable records who had seen their futures summarily withdrawn, Congress passed The DREAM Act in late 2012. The Act “provides conditional permanent residency to certain immigrants of good moral character who graduate from U.S. high schools, arrived in the United States as minors, and lived in the country continuously for at least five years prior to the bill's enactment.”

The law’s other caveat was that those eligible for ‘safe-harbor’ status under the DREAM Act had to be enrolled in college. While this made sense to the American electorate, it was an onerous requirement that eliminated most poor immigrants and their children from consideration.

In fact it wasn’t until last summer’s child migrant crisis—when the US Government was forced to admit that upwards of 90,000 parentless Central American children arrive at the US-Mexico border every year—that world attention began to focus on America’s immigration problems. Rising pressure eventually led President Obama to commit to using an Executive Order to spare up to five million more people from the hell of deportation. Now that the Administration has finally stepped in to act, is the problem solved? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Obama’s action will do little to fix an immigration system that has been broken for decades. At its heart is the oft-heard refrain from Conservatives: “get in line and apply to legalize your status.” What these politicians don’t acknowledge is that there is no line for Mexicans. American immigration policy favors college-educated Europeans and Asians, and has virtually no provisions for Latin American nations. Beyond that problem, there’s still the issue of the thousands of stateless people who live along the border, which neither The US nor Mexico will address. In this regard, we are facing an international human rights issue that transcends immigration policy.

Underneath all the arguments about polices and laws is the ongoing specter of racism and xenophobia that characterizes a nation that was largely built by immigrants. Many Americans seem unable to come to terms with their generalized distaste for any shade of skin that is darker than alabaster. One hundred years ago my Sicilian immigrant ancestors were treated like Latinos are today. The same need for a despised underclass of darker-skinned cheap labor—the disposables—is what has underpinned American prosperity since the days of slavery.

But as The Plastic People shows, most immigrants don’t come from the detritus of society. Many, like Jonathan Espinoza, are victims of a cruel and indiscriminate policy that has already separated over 200,000 parents from their children. In an ironic twist of fate, these kids have become wards of the state, adding to the dreaded ‘drain on resources’ that forms the de facto justification for deporting their often tax-paying relatives.

Whether or not The Plastic People will move the needle of the immigration debate remains to be seen. But as Henry Miller once wrote, “nothing would be altered, I was convinced, except by a change of heart, and who could change the hearts of men?”  Changing the hearts of Americans towards a more compassionate view of minorities has always been the Sisyphean struggle of the United States. Amid weeks of unprecedented protests over police treatment of minorities, the struggle seems far from over.

The digital VOD release of The Plastic People is scheduled for December 16, 2014 via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, PlayStation, Xbox, VUDU, Vimeo on Demand, VHX, Gumroad, Google Play, and others. For additional information, please visit this link

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