One measure of the emotional wallop that this documentary packs is the fact that at times, I found myself screaming at the television screen, pleading with the INS official hearing the case of a refugee claimant, to realize that the applicant was being poorly served by their translator or just paralyzed with fear. It also forces the viewer to question your own prejudices; I am just as scornful as the INS interviewer when a Romanian woman claiming asylum because of persecution as an Anglican can't name the Archbishop of Canterbury when asked for the name of the church's global leader; instead identifying a Bishop of Gibraltar. (The end notes after the film tell us that indeed, the head of the Anglican church for Ana Maria's region is indeed the bishop of Gibraltar; possibly she had misunderstood the question -- one wonders how often such petty misunderstandings produce tragic outcomes.)
But the film does far more than tug at our heartstrings. For a nation of immigrants (some of my own ancestors showed up nearly 400 years ago, others only 75 years ago -- it's all a matter of definition), it performs the valuable service by taking us behind the scenes of one of our most crucial institutions. Both those officials and the applicants waive confidentiality in the public interest; the result is a film that follows a wide array of cases of in which INS officers must decide whether Chinese, Algerian, Romanian, El Savadoran, Nigerian, Albanain (etc etc etc) applicants experience such a "well-founded fear" of persecution in their home countries that they qualify for admission to the United States as refugees and ultimately claim citizenship. It's a process that is core to the U.S. sense of identity -- we like to view our country as a land of freedom and a beacon to all who seek freedom. And yet, this film serves as a sharp reminder that in practice, freedom can be elusive and depend greatly on sheer luck. Historically, the degree to which we roll out the welcome mat has varied widely, from the liberal immigration policies that met Western Europeans in the 19th century to the hostility toward Chinese immigration and the outright anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 40s; when would-be Jewish immigrants -- surely refugees by any standard -- were denied entry to the country because they couldn't obtain good-conduct papers from the Nazi police authorities, for instance.
The INS process that the film depicts is where the rubber meets the road; this ideal of a nation of immigrants that serves as a haven for persecuted individuals seeking freedom crashes headlong into the reality of jaded INS officials, fraudulent claims by those trying to improve their economic lot in life, and grinding bureaucracy. To me, perhaps the most chilling moment was the way these life-and-death decisions about asylum are delivered, not by the officers who have heard the refugee lay out their case and not with a reason for the denial, but in a perfunctory way by the clerks at a public window in a large waiting room, with no reason provided.
There are no heroes or villains, and no easy answers, as the documentary portrays. The film-makers wisely stay behind the camera for the vast majority of the time, leaving the asylum seekers and the INS officials to speak for themselves. I tend to be more skeptical than emotional, but the documentary was so finely-balanced and carefully crafted that I ended it feeling immense empathy for the asylum seekers and admiration for even the most cynical INS officials; even the latter never lost sight of what their decisions mean.
The only area in which the film could have been bettered was if filmmakers could somehow have informed the viewer of what happens to those ultimately denied asylum. Are officers ever aware of the ultimate fates of those who are returned to their country of origin? Do they become aware of mistakes they have made? We learn of one or two mistakes of the other kind -- someone granting asylum only to revoke it later after the person is discovered to be faking or to have made multiple applicants using different identities -- but not about the potentially more serious kinds of mistakes, the ones that the officers are conscious of even as they deliberate.
One cautionary note: the film was originally released around 2000, and filmed earlier than that, so the context in which refugee decisions are made today is likely to be different. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security -- and the general tougher attitude toward both legal and illegal immigration of non-refugees -- the availability of asylum has been greatly restricted. It would be very interesting if the filmmakers were able to follow up this achievement -- although presumably, access to the process is now significantly more difficult to obtain.