Documentary on Arizona Immigration Debate Shines Light on Two Iconic Figures

Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Sheriff Joe Arpaio. (Photo: Dan De Vivo)

Three years ago, when journalist Valeria Fernandez and filmmaker Dan De Vivo started work on a documentary film about immigration in Arizona, the state’s reputation for having some of the nation’s harshest anti-immigrant policies was still in the making.  The landmark immigration law known as SB 1070—enacted this year, and now the object of several court challenges—was still a proposal struggling to win support in the state legislature.

With much less fanfare, then-Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, had signed the state’s employer sanctions law, which penalizes businesses that hire undocumented workers. Armed with that law, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio started conducting immigration raids around Phoenix. Under what Arpaio’s critics called a twisted legal interpretation, sheriff’s deputies began rounding up undocumented immigrants and arresting them for working in the U.S. illegally, thereby punishing the workers but not the companies that hired them.

Fernandez and De Vivo’s film, called Two Americans, shines a light on Sheriff Arpaio, juxtaposing his crusade to arrest and deport large numbers of undocumented immigrants with the story of another iconic figure in Arizona’s immigration debate:  Katherine Figueroa. Figueroa was nine years old in 2009 when her parents, both undocumented Mexican immigrants, were arrested by Maricopa Country sheriff’s deputies in a raid at the Phoenix car wash where they worked.

Watch the film trailer for Two Americans:

Kathy, who is a U.S. citizen, watched the arrests take place on live TV (the sheriff has often publicized his immigration enforcement activities by tipping off the media ahead of time).  Over the following year Kathy went on to become what Fernandez calls, “the poster child for the pro-immigrant movement,” appearing on TV herself, and traveling to Washington, DC to testify in front of a congressional committee looking into immigration policy.

You would think that focusing on these two diametrically-opposed figures would only add to the polarization around immigration.  But Fernandez, an immigrant journalist from Uruguay and a frequent contributor to Feet in Two Worlds, is optimistic it will have the opposite effect. “Our hope is that the film will bring reflection,” she said, adding, “the audience will come away with more questions than answers.”


Kathy Figueroa testifying in front of a congressional committee. (Photo: Dan De Vivo)

It will be a delicate task to portray Sheriff Arpaio and Kathy Figueroa without resorting to stereotypes or the stock language of the immigration debate.  But both Fernandez and De Vivo say they are committed to showing both of their subjects as ordinary people. And they are surprisingly sympathetic to Arpaio, even though the film, which is scheduled to be released in Spring 2011, takes a pro-immigrant perspective.

“Everybody in the film is doing what they are doing to survive,” DeVivo said.  He and Fernandez are still working on the final cut of the film, and raising funds to support the project.

“The sheriff is always accused of being such a horrible person,” added Fernandez. “And you would think that the people who dislike him most are immigrants.”  But she says she’s found sympathy for Arpaio among many undocumented immigrants, even though the sheriff has openly humiliated them, for example by parading handcuffed detainees in old-fashioned stripped prison uniforms along a street in Phoenix.

Arpaio is currently being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged civil rights violations including discriminating against people with limited English skills in county jails.  Yet, immigrants have told Fernandez that they feel sorry for the Sheriff.  “They said, [if he’s arrested] we hope Joe Arpaio won’t have to suffer as much as we did.”

AboutJohn Rudolph
John Rudolph, Executive Producer, is a journalist with more than 40 years experience as a public radio program host and producer of documentaries, podcasts and news reports. John produced the award-winning documentary Feet in Two Worlds: Immigrants in a Global City, which was the debut for the Feet in 2 Worlds project.