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‘Immigration Battle’ Reveals Big, Little Congressional Details

Gutiérrez, center, gets top bill in "Immigration Battle." (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Gutiérrez, center, gets top bill in "Immigration Battle." (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

They were two days away.  

Reps. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., had a July 12, 2014, meeting scheduled with Speaker John A. Boehner to present the Ohio Republican with their immigration reform bill, complete with a whip count, that was ready for introduction.  

But on July 10, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., lost his primary to Dave Brat, who ran on a hard-right immigration platform, and the migrant children crisis on the Southwest border peaked. After that, “the whip count commitments evaporated,” according to “Immigration Battle,” a new documentary by Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini. Their film, which caps a 15-year series of immigration documentaries , premiered earlier this month at the New York Film Festival and is being broadcast and streamed now on PBS’ “Frontline.”  

As in their previous “How Democracy Works Now” series, Robertson and Camerini go behind closed doors with staffers, lawmakers, advocates and people at town halls. The candor and access is unprecedented for a congressional documentary and the result is a portrait of politics on both its biggest stage and its most intimate ones.  

“That was really hard,” Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill., says to his staffers in the car after giving a pep talk to the Service Employees International Union’s Lobby Day. He was referring to the difficulty in being optimistic when the path forward on an immigration overhaul was stuck. “It’s like, what the f***?” he adds.  

“Congressman, you’re their hope, though,” his communications director, Douglas Rivlin, replies.  

A hallmark of the filmmakers’ approach has been keeping the big-picture moments from overshadowing the small, revealing ones. That was the case in their first 10 films, showing the drama of senators maneuvering in a markup, but not forgetting to show one of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s dogs photobombing the frame after a tough floor fight in 2007.  

This time around, the filmmakers start in the days after the 2012 elections, when the latest push began.  

There is Gutiérrez, warning Republicans on the House floor that time is running out for a legislative solution.  

They also show him apologizing for not being as articulate in Spanish (his second language) to Spanish language media and decrying the efforts of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to muscle in on his negotiations.  

They show Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., telling a district town hall that “John Boehner got his job by doing nothing,” a statement in line with the tea party favorite’s hard-right reputation.  

But they also reveal Mulvaney as a political realist. He conducts a different town hall in Spanish — and brings along his teacher to make sure he doesn’t make too many mistakes.  

He tells yet another town hall that the avowed xenophobia in the GOP needs to stop.  

“We need to stop celebrating the absurd of our party. And stop rewarding the outrageous and the stupid. We’re writing off too many people,” he says to a markedly quiet audience.  

“Immigration Battle” tracks whispered strategy sessions at Trattoria Alberto on Barracks Row and soaring White House speeches by President Barack Obama. It follows the personal musings of people in power, as well as the staffs that make their work possible.  

It ends on a somber note, as the latest push failed, just like previous efforts. What’s more, “There’s another election next year,” Robertson says in the voice-over.  

Regarding that election, the Republican presidential primary in particular has shown much of the hyperbole on immigration Mulvaney had decried.  

But for those looking for a more nuanced view of the issue, there is this master class on the topic, “How Democracy Works Now” and its fitting conclusion, “Immigration Battle.”  

According to Robertson, the fight over immigration isn’t likely to be over any time soon, she told Roll Call.  

“It’s too close to who we are. We’re a nation of immigrants,” she said.  

She added that they were comfortable with their decision to move on to other topics, because when it came to immigration policy in Congress, “we said everything we needed. … That’s a good place to be.”  


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