David Zurawik

PBS documentary offers intimate, moving look at human toll of deportation

In a sea of disinformation, lies, spin and social media hate mongering, it’s hard to find any clarity these days on the issue of immigration on our Southern border.

This week, coverage of the forced resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security offered a keen reminder of how emotionally the matter is being discussed even in mainstream legacy publications.


“Kirstjen Nielsen Resigned From DHS Because Trump Wants Someone Even More Cruel,” a headline on the GQ website read. The subhead: “Caging kids wasn’t enough to keep her in Trump’s good graces.”

Immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, have become pawns in a craven political strategy by the Trump administration. To make such government acts as separating children from their parents at the border seem more acceptable, immigrants are systematically dehumanized in political and media rhetoric, whether it’s President Trump using the word “animals” to describe some of them or Fox News host Tucker Carlson saying immigrants make America “dirtier.”


That extreme politicization of the national conversation about immigration is part of what makes director David Sutherland’s “Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” which airs Monday night at 9 on PBS, such a special documentary. The director so tightly and sensitively focuses on one family, that 10 minutes into the two-hour film, no matter what your politics are, you will likely find yourself rooting for Elizabeth Perez, a mother of two young children at the start of the film and former Marine sergeant living in Cleveland, to find a way to be reunited with her husband, Marcos, who has been deported to Mexico.

If you are not familiar with Sutherland, you should know that he made what I consider one of America’s 10 greatest documentaries with “The Farmer’s Wife,” a six-hour 1998 production for Frontline that told the story of a young Nebraska couple, Juanita and Darrel Buschkoetter, who were battling to hold onto their small family farm in Nebraska against the global forces of agribusiness. Juanita Buschkoetter becomes a heroic figure in his film as she leads the fight against overwhelming odds to save the farm, her husband’s sense of self respect and their marriage. Eighteen million people saw it on PBS.

Elizabeth Perez is cut from the same gritty, archetypal American template as Juanita Buschkoetter in her fight to save her marriage and family in “Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” a presentation of Independent Lens, Frontline and Voces.

I suspect no one will believe me in these appallingly polarized political times, but this film transcends any rigid, single ideology on immigration.

One political position it definitely supports is that our immigration policy is broken. That’s the same thing Trump says.

And Elizabeth is nothing if not pure Marine through and through. You can see from the opening frames how her time in the Ohio National Guard and the Marines shaped her from the way she stands and walks, to the way she thinks and fights for what she believes. Conservatives are going to have a hard time not admiring her.

But the film is also deeply sympathetic to those millions of undocumented persons who are living in the shadows in the U.S., constantly looking over their shoulders for fear of being caught and deported as Marcos was after running a yellow light on his way to work one day.

That’s anti-Trump, as is the way the film, more than anything else, humanizes Elizabeth and Marcos Perez and their children. In the end, that is its power and glory, the way it uses art to counter a rising tide of hateful, dehumanizing rhetoric, which is only expected to get worse as the 2020 presidential election approaches.


But nothing about the politics of this documentary is silo-think-friendly. For example, Marcos was deported in 2010. That was on the watch of President Obama, not Trump.

Forget trying to fit the images or narrative into one neat box or another, and just give yourself over to Sutherland’s storytelling. The film draws you in with one moving scene after another.

It opens on a stirring red, white and blue American moment: Elizabeth, in her sergeant’s Marine uniform, comes before the City of East Cleveland’s common council to present it with an American flag that will fly over the community’s City Hall.

A leader of a local Hispanic organization asks the council to support Elizabeth in the combat veteran’s effort to bring her husband from whom she has been separated for five years back to the U.S.

From there, the film cuts to Elizabeth and her two young sons in Cleveland saying goodnight via Skype to Marcos, who lives in Mexico City. As the four family members finish saying their prayers together, one of the children scoots forward in the bed and kisses the image of his father on the computer screen.

Dissolve and open on the image of Elizabeth carrying a Luvs baby diapers box filled with manila envelops and documents for her petitions to gain her husband’s re-entry into the United States. She is bringing the box to the office of her lawyer. As she walks down the hall, the soundtrack is filled with the sound a female squad leader calling out marching orders that are in sync with Elizabeth’s movements.


We find out from her conversation with the lawyer that she enlisted in the Ohio Army National Guard in 1999 and was sent to Afghanistan in 2003. She later joined the Marines and served there for five years. She wipes away tears as she talks about the possibility of leaving the country she served and “loves” to be with her husband.

And then, the cameras take viewers to a march of migrant workers in North Carolina where Elizabeth is marching and speaking.

“My husband, Marcos, was stopped in 2010,” she tells the crowd. “He was an undocumented worker. He was scooped up and thrown away like trash. He is not trash. Everyone here is a man and a woman, and you deserve to be treated as a man and a woman and nothing else. The injustices are just too great — from here and the fields of North Carolina all across the United State where families are being shredded apart. And what are our elected leaders doing? Nothing.”

Viewers will see Elizabeth graduating from Cleveland State University with a bachelor’s degree and top honors in social work. It’s a powerful and triumphant moment. But even as she proudly talks about her journey from high school dropout to college graduate, you’ll hear the sadness seep into her voice as she talks about Marcos not being there and not being able to appreciate how hard it has been for her doing it alone.

Neither Elizabeth nor Marcos are one dimensional depictions. Part of Marcos’ problem with immigration authorities involves misdemeanor charges against him from 2001. And while he works as a soccer referee in Mexico City, he seems to let events drift even as Elizabeth talks about the decisions and actions he needs to take if his family is going to come and live with him.

Elizabeth, meanwhile, increasingly suffers under the strain of not knowing if her husband will ever be allowed back into the U.S. or if she is going to have to take her children to Mexico, which she describes as living in “exile.” She suffers from anxiety and depression to the extent that during the film the government upgrades her disability rating from 30 to 80 percent.


Sutherland shows the effects of the strain on her with a couple of scenes in which she comes at one of her young children with the intensity of a Marine squad leader when he starts to cry.

This is a great documentary filmmaker, not a propagandist, and the truth of most peoples’ lives are complicated, especially when they are so personally affected by such global forces as nationalism, immigration and an administration willing to use and abuse them for political gain.

And yet amid such complications, Elizabeth speaks the simple, core truth of this film and her life when she says, “I put my life on the line. My country won’t let my husband live here.”

I don’t know if “Marcos Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” will change the minds of any of the people who seriously believe keeping immigrants out will really “make America great again.”

But all praise to Sutherland and PBS for offering such an eloquent and powerful antidote to the poison of dehumanization that courses through our political and media ecosystems today.