By Sarah Osman
Told with just the right amount of empathy, Five Years North offers an illuminating, and much needed, look at immigration in America.
Five Years North, directed by Chris Temple & Zach Ingrasci. Screening on PBS stations this week.
According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 40 million people in the U.S. are immigrants. Of that 40 million, roughly 10.5 million are undocumented. For decades, the debate sparked by illegal immigrants, ICE, and America’s malfunctioning immigration system has been politically volatile, but the confrontation over who belongs and who doesn’t turned explosive after Trump took office from 2016-2020.
Set primarily during the Trump years, Five Years North, which premiered as part of WORLD Channel’s documentary series America ReFramed, is a heart-wrenching look at just how extensively twisted our nation’s immigration system has become. The documentary follows Luis, a 16-year-old boy from Guatemala who arrives in New York looking for work. Luis is an endearing kid — he admits to having multiple Facebook accounts because he likes talking to girls and likes to goof off with his cousins. Luis is no different from most teenagers, but his situation is far more precarious. He managed to make it over the border — his father didn’t. He’s expected to send money back to his family so that they can take care of his sick grandmother and put food on their table. He’s also expected to go to school while remaining employed.
It isn’t a surprise that Luis struggles with his studies. He values his education — he is an eager learner — but he often has to go straight from work to school, where he is understandably exhausted. Luis’s school tries to make accommodations for him, but there is only so much they can do. One of the many merits of this documentary: it is refreshing to see a school that actually cares about its students and tries to do what’s best for them.
Rather than focus on every single undocumented immigrant out there, Five Years North is wise to focus on primarily on Luis’s plight. One of the ways people can be dehumanized is by referring to them as a mere statistic — it’s hard to understand the plight of a number. It is far more difficult to ignore or dismiss Luis after one encounters his family, his school, and hears his story. Luis discusses how, when he first arrived in New York, he was placed into a detention camp for two months. He describes the loneliness he felt and how his one saving grace was a teddy bear given to him on his sixteenth birthday. Is Luis a criminal mastermind who deserves to be in a cage? No, he is a child who is trying to do what’s best for his family.
Five Years North doesn’t just focus on Luis. The film also follows Judy, an ICE officer who is Latina. In left-wing media, the agency is often portrayed as a faceless blob that is hellbent on mistreating the powerless. But Judy undercuts that easy stereotype. She joined ICE because her family encouraged her to find a steady government job with guaranteed benefits. Ironically, though she has done just as her family asked, some of them are not pleased by her decision to work for ICE. And Judy has her doubts; she often ponders if she is betraying her own people. She tries to do what’s best for the immigrants she is tasked with overseeing, but admits that she is hamstrung by the overwhelming amount of work she is given, much of it unnecessary. For example, numerous cases that had been closed years before have been reopened, forcing her and her coworkers to comb through files of law-abiding immigrants who have been in the country for years. Judy also rebukes Trump’s numerous absurd claims, including the impossibility that ICE could somehow remove every “bad” immigrant. She presents a perspective that is not often heard — especially by those who should hear it.
Five Years North offers a harrowing look at the complex predicament that those who are deemed “illegal” must grapple with. And the filmmakers are honest enough to admit there isn’t a simple answer. Told with just the right amount of empathy, Five Years North offers an illuminating, and much needed, look at immigration in America.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer residing in Wilmington, North Carolina. In addition to writing for The Arts Fuse, she has written for Watercooler HQ, The Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, Young Hollywood, and Matador Network, among other sites. Her work was included in the anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences in the Trump Era. She is currently a first year fiction MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. When she’s not writing, she’s dancing, watching movies, traveling, or eating. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos. You can keep up with her on Twitter and Instagram: @SarahMinaOsman