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Jamie Moffett

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Still a Nation of Immigrants (VIDEO)

Posted: 06/11/10 06:56 PM ET

Fifty years ago, in the midst of a fierce political debate surrounding the United States' immigration policies, a young senator named John F. Kennedy penned an essay called "A Nation of Immigrants." It was a groundbreaking book, asserting urgently and poignantly that our nation's greatness owes much to the immigrants among us.

As current headlines make clear, Kennedy's plea is as timely and necessary as ever. The United States is -- and always has been -- a nation of immigrants, though we continue to struggle to come to terms with the fact. Whether we're debating the merits of building a 1,952-mile fence to keep "them" out or arguing the constitutionality of legally enforced racial profiling, the immigration debate shows no signs of abating. Though there is no lack of emotionally charged rhetoric on all sides of the debate, seldom do we stop to consider who these immigrants actually are, and why they have left their families and risked their lives in a desperate attempt to find menial jobs that pay paltry wages.

During the making of my new documentary, Return to El Salvador, I met Salvadorans who fled their homeland in the 1980s during the country's civil war. Eighteen months ago I couldn't have pointed to El Salvador on a map, but the more I learned about their story, the more disturbed I became. I discovered that their story was in many ways my story. I learned of the horrific ways in which United States policy had contributed to atrocities in this tiny Central American nation, and that these very policies were forcing hard-working, law-abiding people to flee for their lives.

It's a bitter irony: U.S. actions in El Salvador and elsewhere force migration north, and once here, policies are in place to ensure that immigrants' lives will continue to be exceedingly difficult.

Most recently, Arizona passed immigration legislation that even Tom Tancredo, one of the nation's most outspoken opponents of illegal immigration, has questioned. The bill, which requires Arizona police officers to question anyone they suspect of being undocumented, nonetheless maintains strong support in certain quarters. As irony would again have it, however, most of these supporters are themselves descendants of immigrants. Sarah Palin, for one, counts among her ancestors many who sailed on the Mayflower in search of a better life.

While researching and filming Return to El Salvador, narrated by Martin Sheen and endorsed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I learned from Salvadorans themselves what I never managed to learn about the immigration debate elsewhere. I learned that some of the worst human rights offenders in El Salvador were taught the tricks of the trade by our own military at the School of the Americas, in Fort Benning, Georgia. I learned that while the civil war in El Salvador ended nearly twenty years ago, the murder rate is higher than ever, due in large part to North America's ravenous consumption of illegal drugs. I learned about the way in which North American corporations operate in the region, often with impunity and consistently putting profits above people. And I learned about the corporations right here in the United States that rely on undocumented immigrants to work for minimum wage or less.

This is a disturbing, tragic story that must be told, so this summer I will be taking Return to El Salvador on the road throughout the United States and Canada.

This week, in fact, I am traveling to Ottawa at the invitation of MP John McKay to screen for Parliament a portion of the film that exposes the mysterious disappearance and murder of Salvadoran anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera, who had vigorously and publicly spoken out against practices at a gold mine operated by a notorious Canadian mining corporation. MP McKay has presented a crucial piece of corporate accountability legislation called C-300, which aims to limit the environmental and human rights abuses that Canadian mining companies commit overseas. Similar legislative initiative is needed in the United States in order to hold our corporations accountable for their actions both domestically and abroad.

If the future of El Salvador and the Salvadoran diaspora is to be at all brighter than its recent past, courageous and compassionate action by the United States and its citizens is urgently needed. While we cannot change what has already happened, it's not too late to examine the ways in which we have been complicit in the suffering of millions, and working together, to forge a better future for us all.

To learn more about Return to El Salvador and when it is coming to a theater near you, visit returntoelsalvador.com.