|Two Americans: Two citizens face to face at
each end of the immigration debate
|By Eduardo Barraza | June 4, 2012
Katherine Figueroa testified before a sub-committee of the U.S. Congress on June
10, 2010 in Washington, D.C. She is one of the protagonists of the new
documentary Two Americans. Photo taken from video trailer
|Related video: Two Americans trailer
Published by the Hispanic Institute of Social Issues in Phoenix, Arizona
|HISTORY IS ABOUT
Phoenix, Arizona – A new documentary about immigration in Maricopa County, Arizona
produced in the place known as “ground zero” of the immigration debate was presented in a
Phoenix theater on May 31.
Two Americans —produced by journalist Valeria Fernandez and documentary maker Dan
DeVivo— juxtaposes two defining factors of the illegal immigration issue in Arizona: the
enforcement of immigration laws by local authorities and the separation of families where
some members lack legal status and others are U.S. citizens.
Founded in 2002
Published by the Hispanic Institute of Social Issues
Children attend debate about
Oscar, the child laborer of the
Sheriff Arpaio represents evil
force in Maricopa County
Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a scarecrow
and footman doomed to shame
Arizona vs. United States: the
struggle for preemption on
The story line revolves around internationally known
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who bills himself as
“America’s toughest sheriff”, and 9-year old Katherine
The girl emerges as an involuntarily character in the
context of immigration enforcement by the sheriff’s office.
She is pulled into a sociopolitical and legal dilemma when
her parents, Carlos and Sandra, are arrested at their
workplace by deputies, accused of working with false
The documentary places its focal point on the paradoxical
fact that both Arpaio and Figueroa are U.S. born American
citizens. On one side of this immigration equation is the
sheriff, an inflexible enforcer of immigration laws at the
local level, and on the other side is Figueroa, as much
citizen as Arpaio is, but victimized because she is the
daughter of unauthorized immigrants.
The film seeks to highlight that while two Americans have
the same birth rights granted in the U.S. Constitution, the
younger one finds herself in a devastating predicament
when her undocumented parents are incarcerated, and
she faces the reality that her citizenship is not enough to
keep her family together.
Two Americans captures the girl’s drama and emotions
and contrasts them with the sheriff’s arrogance and
cynicism. Both divergent real-life characters —Arpaio and
Figueroa— are shown in unscripted moments rarely
captured by traditional news media. The girl’s innocence
and dignity stand out before a senile, media-obsessed
sheriff who shamelessly gives more importance to have
done things “his way” in his life than to act as a the
elected official he is.
Considering its title, Two Americans, the documentary
comes a bit short of drawing a more consistent
parallelism between the older “American” and the
younger “American”. The producers excluded family
background information on both Arpaio and Figueroa to
establish and weave the fundamental element of
citizenship —an almost unavoidable scene could have
been seeing Figueroa reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at
school and Arpaio at a public ceremony, for instance. To
have included a more strong symbolism of some defining
aspects of the American citizenship would have achieved
a deeper analysis between the “two Americans”.
Two Americans could have also presented a broader
picture through a brief introduction to establish why and
how Arizona and Maricopa County became the
immigration’s debate “ground zero”. A short summary
beginning with the massive immigration marches of 2006
through the start of the sheriff’s immigration raids in the
Fall of 2007, as well as explaining the reasons Arizona
saw an influx of undocumented immigrants, could have given a little bit of context to those
who are not familiar with the problem as those who have lived in the midst of it.
The documentary frequently jumps from aspects directly concerning the script of the “two
Americans” to others a little unrelated —among them corruption of public officials, deaths of
inmates in county jails, and a protest of a group of young Phoenix anarchists, for example.
These scenes, although part of the overall situation in Maricopa County, take away the
focus from the central plot and take the place of scenes more essential and relevant to the
comparative analysis of Two Americans.
Nevertheless, Two Americans is a remarkably strong documentary. It represents a serious
and extensive work that documents a key time in history, and will have an important place
within the collectiveness of other recent works on the topic of immigration. The work done
by Fernandez and DeVivo stands out for showing the collision between the enforcement of
immigration laws at the local level and undocumented immigrants, as well as the separation
of families that result from that collision.
Both immigration enforcement and separation of families are two of the most dramatic
components of the complex and highly-polarized issue of illegal immigration in the state and
other parts of the country. Two Americans achieves this through two opposing and
conflicting characters that ironically are linked by their American citizenship.
Arguably, one of the major contributions of Two Americans is that it shows a more informal
portrait of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose grandiose personality and barefaced sarcasm proves,
for the record, that the octogenarian man has long forgotten the oath of office he took to
serve and protect the residents of Maricopa County, to entertain himself with his shameful
delusion of grandeur.
Two Americans; two children of immigrants
While the documentary does not point it out, there is an interesting underlying reality: both
Arpaio and Figueroa are children of immigrants who came to the United States looking to
improve their economic situation. Arpaio’s parents came to the country from Italy in the
1930s, and Figueroa’s parents arrived from Mexico, presumably within the last two decades.
Of immigrant parents, Arpaio came to be an obstinate enforcer of local immigration laws,
arresting thousands of undocumented immigrants who —though illegally— came to the U.S.
for similar reasons as his parents did: to work and to better their lives.
In this context, by arresting Figueroa’s parents, Arpaio comes —if figuratively— face to face
with a 9 year-old girl, and by looking at her he sees himself in a mirror where U.S. citizen by
birthright is the common denominator. Constitutionally, Joseph Arpaio and Katherine
Figueroa are on equal terms: two children of immigrants, two Americans, each of them
representing both ends of the immigration debate.
Paradoxically, Arpaio, the son of Italian immigrants, becomes during the last few years a
persecutor of immigrants, but in doing so he finds himself confronted by a child just like the
child he was: a member of an ethnic minority growing in the U.S., a child of foreign parents
who left their country to seek the American Dream. Arpaio the enforcer, Arpaio the
megalomaniac, Arpaio the “toughest sheriff of America”, is not better, is not far, is not above
in any term to little Katherine Figueroa.