This is the third of my three-part list of the best documentaries that focus on immigration and are great choices for showing in high school and college immigration classes. This third and final part will focus specifically on issues related to socioeconomic attainment, mobility, and assimilation — the individual-, community-, and institutional-level processes involved as immigrants (regardless of their legal status) become integrated into the rest of U.S. society.

Part 1 focused on the historical and global context of immigration and Part 2 looked at unauthorized immigration. The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Sociology of Immigration” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that are good choices for that topic as well.

Assimilation © Corbis

Socioeconomic Mobility and Settlement Patterns

What are the historical and contemporary patterns of educational, occupational, and income attainment on the part of immigrants and how do such patterns compare across waves of immigration, nationality/ethnic group, and in relation to U.S.-born racial/ethnic groups? Also, what are some recent developments regarding where immigrants settle, how they create their own communities and enclaves, and role of these ethnic communities in their overall assimilation process?

Assimilation and Ethnic Identity

In this section, I focus on the assimilation and integration process on the individual level. Specifically, I look at the different forms of forms of assimilation that immigrants undergo, the factors that affect their own personal racial/ethnic/cultural identity, and how community- and institutional factors influence whether immigrants experience upward or downward assimilation through time.

Language, Religious, and Political Incorporation

This section explores assimilation and integration specifically related to native language retention vs. English acquisition among immigrants, their religious patterns and the roles that religious organizations play in their lives, and their patterns of participating in the political process at various levels and in particular, the prospects of immigrants leveraging their growing population size into greater political power.

Emerging Issues and a Changing National Identity

In this final section of my “Sociology of Immigration” course, I reflect back on where immigrants to the U.S. have been — politically, economically, and culturally — and just as important, take a look at where immigration and immigration policy are headed as we move forward into the 21st century and in particular, as we become more culturally diverse, globalized, and transnational.

This is the second of my three-part list of the best documentaries that focus on immigration and are great choices for showing in high school and college immigration classes. This second part will focus specifically on the issue of unauthorized immigration. We all know that unauthorized immigration has become one of the most controversial, hotly-debated, and emotionally-charged issues in American society today. In that context, these documentaries highlight various sides of the debate and taken together, will hopefully provide a more comprehensive picture of this complicate and often contradictory issue.

Part 1 focused on the historical and global context of immigration and Part 3 will look at socioeconomic attainment, mobility, and assimilation. The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Sociology of Immigration” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that are good choices for that topic as well.

The Land of Opportunity © Dave Cutler, Images.com/Corbis

Unauthorized Immigration: The Basics

As the name implies, this section lays out the basic historical, political, and economic foundation and concepts that frame the contemporary nature of unauthorized immigration. I focus much of the discussion on such immigration from Mexico but also stress that much of the unauthorized immigrant population are people who had official permission to enter the U.S., and with that in mind, why we as a society focus such a disproportionate amount of attention on those from Mexico.

Nativism and Xenophobia

In this section, I describe historical and contemporary examples of how immigrants from various backgrounds and countries have encountered nativism, xenophobia, and racism upon their arrival. At the same time, I also focus on how such hostility and tensions have been magnified in recent years against unauthorized immigrants and the racial/ethnic connotations behind them.

Immigration Reform

This section explores the various proposals, programs, and laws that attempt to address the unauthorized immigration issue. I cover the pros and cons of both the “enforcement only” and “comprehensive reform” approaches, as well as examining the variety of costs and benefits that unauthorized immigration have on American society and its economy.

Women, Gender, & Family

This section highlights the immigration process and experiences of women, children, and families specifically. I examine the multi-level issues involved in transnational families where parents are separated from their children and the effects that workplace raids by Immigration Control and Enforcement agents have on unauthorized immigrant families.

This spring semester, I am again teaching my “The Sociology of Immigration” course, whose description reads, “This course examines who, why, and how different groups immigrate to the U.S. and what happens once they arrive — how they are received by mainstream society and how they adjust to their new country. Specific issues include settlement, education, identity, assimilation, discrimination, employment, language, marriage, legal status, and political participation.”

With that in mind, I would like to share my list of films, videos, and documentaries that I think are good choices for showing in introductory classes focused on immigration (the videos are most suited for college and advanced high school courses). As we all know, the political, economic, and cultural issues related to immigration are some of the most emotional, controversial, and hotly-debated topics in American society today. While the documentaries listed here tend to emphasize a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, they all do an excellent job in portraying and highlighting just how complex and even contradictory this issue is.

Statue of Liberty © Vance Vasu, Images.com/Corbis

The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Sociology of Immigration” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that I consider to be good choices for that topic as well. This post focuses the the first few topics of my immigration course — the history and global context of immigration. Part 2 will focus on issues specific to unauthorized immigration and Part 3 will emphasize socioeconomic attainment, mobility, and assimilation.

Basic Concepts: The Racialized Landscape

In this first section of the course, I lay out the sociological framework and institutional nature of the U.S.’s racial/ethnic landscape, within which the issues of immigration are framed and structured. I focus on how, contrary to historical and contemporary ideals of being “colorblind,” American society has been and continues to be highly racialized and these mechanisms of racialization impact immigration.

  • Race: Power of an Illusion (Episode 2): This excellent PBS series explores the social and political construction of race and perceived racial differences. As it relates to immigration, this episode takes an in-depth look at how the identity of “American” has been closely linked with Whiteness and the inherent barriers that people of color and immigrants have to overcome in order to formally and informally be considered “real” Americans.
  • The Color of Fear
  • Race, the World’s Most Dangerous Myth
  • Understanding Race

Historical Patterns of Entry and Restriction

In this section, I summarize the major waves of immigration into the U.S. through the years, along with the evolution of immigration laws and regulation in U.S. history.

Motivations & Incorporation: Past & Present

This section explores the multidimensional and multi-level process of how immigrants have been received by mainstream American society and how they have adapted to the challenges and opportunities in the first generation of life in the U.S. I also discuss the major theories of why and how immigration happens, particularly as they relate to global political, economic, and cultural forces.

The Global Context

Drawing on the global issues inherent in the immigration process, this section explores some examples of the variety of experiences and issues of immigration in other countries around the world. Students in my class find it useful to compare and contrast the experiences of immigrants in other countries to those of immigrants to the U.S.

This is the second part of my list of best films, videos, and documentaries that focus on Asian Americans and are great choices for showing in introductory Asian American Studies classes (read Part 1 here). The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Asian American Experience” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that I’ve shown and consider to be good choices for that topic as well.

Discrimination, Inequality, & Racism

As the name implies, this section focuses on the historical/contemporary examples and individual/institutional ways in which Asian Americans have been targets of racial discrimination, ranging from the Foreign Miner’s Tax, to the Chinese Exclusion Tax, the Japanese American imprisonment, and Vincent Chin’s murder, to name just a few.

  • A Dream in Doubt: This video chronicles the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, an Indian American Sikh gas station owner in Phoenix who was shot to death by Frank Roque in the first hate crime murder committed after the 9/11 attacks. It’s a moving look at both the individual costs of hatred, along with how the criminal justice system responds to such a crime in an emotional time for the nation.
  • Lest We Forget: Another excellent video that connects the imprisonment of Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attack with the incarceration and racial profiling of Arab and Muslim Americans after 9/11.
  • Who Killed Vincent Chin
  • Vincent Who?
  • Children of the Camps
  • American Sons
  • Sa-I-Gu
  • Wet Sand

Interracial Relationships and Dynamics

In this section, I focus on the issue of interracial dating and marriage, a hot-button topic for many Asian Americans. I explore the individual, family, community, and institutional factors that influence the choice of who a person dates or marries, with a particular focus on the issue from the point of view of Asian American males.

Faith, Spirituality, and Religion

This section explores roles that faith, spirituality, and religion can play in the lives of Asian Americans, ranging from providing emotional stability, practical information and resource, and providing a bridge to the rest of American society.

  • “Muslim” episode of the reality TV show 30 Days (Season 1): Created by Morgan Spulock (the guy who made Supersize Me in which he only ate McDonalds fast food for 30 days), this particular episode involves a practicing Christian living with a Muslim American family for 30 days as he tries to find his own truth about what Islam is all about.
  • American Made: Not a documentary but rather, a short drama about a Indian American family and how temporarily getting stranded in the dessert leads to an intergenerational understanding of what it means to be a Sikh in American society.
  • The Split Horn
  • Blue Collar and Buddha
  • Muslims in America

Sexuality and Creative Expression

This section highlights two sets of issues that have been marginalized or taboo in the Asian American community for too long — sexuality/sexual orientation and creative/artistic expression. I try to emphasize that in addition to achieving “material” goals related to education, jobs, and income, Asian Americans also need to recognize the value of other forms of living and personal expression that connect the individual with the community.

Social Movements & Collective Action

While it’s important to recognize how Asian Americans have been targeted for discrimination, it’s just as important to understand that through the years, Asian Americans have not just been passive victims. Instead, in this section, I describe how there is a long and proud history of activism and collective action within the Asian American community and how we have fought back to assert our rights as true Americans.

New Paradigms and Emerging Issues

In this final section of my “Asian American Experience” course, I reflect back on where Asian Americans have been and just as important, take a look at where Asian Americans, American society, and the world in general is going as we move forward into the 21st century and in particular, as we become more culturally diverse, globalized, and transnational.

As the new academic year starts for many colleges around the country, like many professors, I am busy preparing to teach my courses. In my case, I usually teach two courses in the fall semester: “The Asian American Experience” (a ‘conventional’ classroom course with 40 students) and “Bridging Asia and Asian America” (a once-a-week, two-hour colloquium with 30 students, taught in the lounge of one of the residence halls). While these two courses are distinct, obviously there is a lot of overlap in terms of examining the histories and experiences of Asian Americans and their connections back to Asia.

With that in mind, I would like to share my list of films, videos, and documentaries that I think are good choices for showing in introductory Asian American Studies classes (the videos are most suited for college and advanced high school courses). As the study of Asian Americans continues to grow, hopefully instructors of these kind of courses and others interested in Asian Americans in general will find this list useful.

The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Asian American Experience” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that I’ve shown and consider to be good choices for that topic as well.

Basic Concepts: The Racialized Landscape

In this first section of the course, I lay out the sociological framework and institutional nature of the U.S.’s racial/ethnic landscape into which Asian Americans fit. I focus on how, contrary to historical and contemporary ideals of being “colorblind,” American society has been and continues to be highly racialized and how social institutions reinforce and perpetuate racial distinctions.

  • The Color of Fear: Made in 1992, this video is “just” a group of men from various racial backgrounds sitting around talking about race, but their words sharply illustrate many of the basic and also subtle ways in which racialization gets played out on the individual level and ultimately highlights the failures of trying to be colorblind.
  • Race: Power of an Illusion
  • Race, the World’s Most Dangerous Myth
  • Understanding Race

Immigration and Settlement

In this section, I describe the history of Asian immigration to the U.S., how the 1965 Immigration Act has impacted the current demographics of the Asian American population, and the dynamics of Asian American ethnic communities, from the first urban Chinatowns to emerging suburban enclaves like Little Saigon.

Assimilation and Ethnic Identity

This section explores the multidimensional and multi-level process of assimilation and ethnic identity formation. I discuss how these ideas involve more than just acculturation, how ideas of what it means to be an American have evolved through the years, and how these dynamics play out among adopted and mixed-race Asian Americans.

Women, Gender, and Family

Emphasizing the histories, experiences, challenges, and contributions of Asian American women, I highlight their paths of immigration into American society and the contemporary and often contradictory pressures they face, from familial expectations, to academic success, to dealing with exoticization and “yellow fever.”

  • Never Perfect: This video portrait follows a young Vietnamese American woman and her decision to have eyelid surgery. In between, it highlights the historical and contemporary pressures on how Asian American women are expected to look and behave.
  • Slaying the Dragon
  • Quiet Passages
  • Good for Her
  • Miss India Georgia
  • Knowing Her Place
  • A Life Without Fear

The Model Minority Image

This section examines the origins of Asian Americans portrayed as the “model minority” and in what ways a seemingly “positive” stereotype is true and beneficial to Asian Americans, and how it also distorts the reality of life for many of us as it overgeneralizes and carelessly lumps all Asian Americans together.

Work and Employment

How do Asian Americans differ in terms in terms of their occupational and employment success? I analyze two different aspects of that question in this section — glass ceiling barriers that many Asian Americans still confront in the workplace and secondly, how many choose to bypass those hurdles altogether by owning their own small business.

Part 2 of my list of best documentaries about Asian Americans will focus on videos relating to discrimination & racism, interracial relationships, faith, spirituality, & religion, sexuality & creative expression, social movements & collective action, and emerging issues in the 21st century.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Asian American filmmaker Christopher Wong about his first feature-length documentary Whatever It Takes, scheduled to premier on PBS stations nationwide on March 30, 2010. The documentary profiles Chinese American Edward Tom, Principal of the new Bronx Center for Sciences & Mathematics:

Christopher Wong’s Whatever It Takes offers a fascinating inside look at the first year of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics (BCSM), a small public high school in the South Bronx headed by the idealistic Principal Edward Tom, an Asian American man who gave up a lucrative position as an executive with Saks Fifth Avenue for the underpaid, supremely challenging career as an educator in the inner city. . . .

This deeply emotional, character-driven documentary focuses on the school’s dynamic rookie principal and a spunky ninth-grade girl with big dreams but even bigger obstacles. The personal stories of the school’s students and staff call to mind larger themes of school reform and the need for educators, parents and policy makers to prioritize the transformation of the public school system so that all children can receive a quality education.

Grittily realistic, yet ultimately triumphant, Whatever It Takes paints a compelling picture of cutting-edge ideas and dedicated individuals, united in their vision to restore hope to a broken community.

What were your experiences in elementary and high school growing up?

I grew up in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood, so the area schools were excellent. I had good teachers, clean school facilities, and small class sizes. Since my parents were both college-educated, they always checked my homework every night, and made sure I studied for my tests. There was never any question in my mind that I would go to college; it was a foregone conclusion. However, for the kids profiled in my film, college is only a dream — something that only “privileged” people get to experience.

How did you decide to become a filmmaker, rather than a ‘safer’ occupation more typical of Asian Americans, such as an doctor, engineer, etc.?

Believe me, I always thought that I would end up working a high-paying, white-collar job in a Fortune 500 corporation. While being a lawyer or businessperson wasn’t exactly my dream, I thought those careers would be good enough to provide me with a comfortable and happy life. But after graduating with a degree in economics, two years at a law firm, and five years in banking, I finally realized that I was meant to do something more creative, something that was a better fit for my talents.

Right before I quit my last corporate job, I started watching a lot of documentaries (e.g., “Hoop Dreams,” “Salesman,” “Roger & Me”). Those films taught me that the two most important qualities of a documentary filmmaker were 1) the ability to listen well, and 2) the willingness to invest oneself completely in someone else’s life. While I didn’t have the brains to become a doctor or the genes to be a professional athlete, I knew I could produce good documentaries. And so, I quit my job, started taking video production courses at a community college, and 10 years later, here I am.

Why did you decide to focus on Principal Edward Tom and his school?

When you see Principal Ed Tom on screen, you instantly understand why people find him so compelling. He’s a born leader, and people absolutely listen to what he has to say. Leaders like Principal Tom are rare, but those are just the sort of individuals that we all want to see running our nation’s public schools. When I went to school, I never had a principal like him; in fact, I don’t even remember seeing my high school principal more than once or twice a year. But Ed is always with his students, and they know that he cares, and that he will fight for them with everything he’s got.

But I didn’t want to just portray Ed only as a hero. I was also equally curious to see if good intentions and constant effort were enough to bring about change in one of the nation’s worst school districts. After all, Ed was a rookie principal, and failure was always looming around the next corner. Then add to the mix the potentially explosive racial dynamic of Ed as an Asian American amidst a student body almost entirely comprised of African American and Latino children. I remember telling Ed that while I wished him the best, my documentary might show him falling on his face and getting fired midway through the year. When Ed said he was OK with that level of honesty, I knew that I could go ahead and start filming.

There’s a debate about whether race or social class are the bigger barrier for African Americans and Latinos these days. What are your thoughts on this question?

In the South Bronx district of New York City, race and social class are almost identical. The South Bronx is the poorest district in the entire country, and it’s no coincidence that you almost never encounter a white face on the street (unless it’s a cop). So, for a kid who comes from a low-income, African American/Latino family, they have so many hurdles to overcome just to make it into college. They often have no support from their parents, no role models who have gone to college, and few friends with high career aspirations.

And they certainly don’t have the financial means to afford college, or other things that are sometimes necessary to get admitted (e.g. SAT prep courses). Having said that, I don’t think that South Bronx kids should use these barriers as excuses for lack of achievement; however, when we do see someone from that kind of environment make it to college, we should recognize that accomplishment as something truly great.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Asian American students these days?

Just like there are poor African American and Latino students, there are also very poor Asian American students. So, a lot of the challenges are the same. But what seems to be different is that there is an ingrained cultural respect for education and the value of a college degree. Thus, as a whole, Asian Americans have significantly higher college attendance and graduation rates. Therefore, the challenge to Asian American students generally has nothing to do with access to college or finding jobs that pay well. Rather, the real challenge for our community is to seek after jobs that are truly meaningful, and that have positive effects on society at large.

For too long, Asian Americans have been satisfied with replicating the financial success of their white American counterparts, all the while neglecting to invest themselves in causes greater than themselves. Truthfully, much of that selfish motivation comes directly from our Asian American immigrant parents, whose main goals were survival, stability, and social conformity. Liberating ourselves from our parents’ dreams for us is not an easy battle.

Asian Americans as a whole have done pretty well occupationally and economically but in many ways, are still not perceived to be “leaders.” Individuals like Edward Tom are slowly emerging as exceptions to this image, but what else do Asian Americans need to do to change this perception?

To be seen as leaders, Asian Americans need to get more involved in issues that extend beyond their own ethnic community. I think that’s what makes Edward Tom such an amazing figure, because he is absolutely putting his life on the line for people that neither look like him nor can give him back anything in return.

Leaders are made through sacrifice and commitment (e.g Martin Luther King, Jr.), and Asian Americans need to do a better job of understanding that. On a positive note, I should say that I have recently seen more and more Asian Americans pursuing unconventional careers and being willing to take risks on the behalf of others.