'Show Me Your Papers' Laws and American Cultural Values Commentary
'Show Me Your Papers' Laws and American Cultural Values
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JURIST Guest Columnist Margaret Hu of Duke University School of Law says that the recently enacted state-level immigration laws go against long-held American ideals and cultural values, which were exemplified in the World War II-era film Casablanca

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) recently filed a lawsuit against South Carolina, challenging the state’s strict immigration law. The DOJ has now challenged the constitutionality of three state immigration laws: Arizona, Alabama, and South Carolina. Critics of these laws call them “racial profiling” laws or, more aptly, “show me your papers” laws because they require all immigrants to carry their documents with them at all times for production on demand by state law enforcement officers.

These lawsuits and others are winding their way through the courts and the Supreme Court will likely have the final say. These laws have already sparked a widespread cultural protest. Some have already controversially compared them to Nazi Germany, where Jews were required to carry papers. However overstated or inappropriate the comparison, and whatever the outcome of the legal challenges, passing a law that requires people to show their papers on demand does not seem to sit right with American culture. To understand the source of our cultural discomfort, all we need to do is watch Casablanca.

Casablanca was based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. The source of the phrase “show me your papers” was based on Burnett’s real-life encounters with Nazi officials. During a 1938 European vacation, Burnett witnessed first-hand the discrimination and persecution of the early days of Hitler’s fascism. On his return to the US, he started writing a Broadway play that communicated an anti-Nazi, anti-isolationist message through positioning the plight of the political refugee in the actual, real-time crisis he had just seen unfolding in an alarming anti-Semitic context. By 1940, Everybody Comes to Rick’s took the form of a three-act play, containing a plot and character sketch that eventually would be adapted into the Casablanca screenplay.

The main theme of the story, communicating the plight of the refugee, is conveyed in the opening scenes. The camera pans to the modern equivalent of an immigration raid as the police round up the political refugees and herd them into police vans, giving rise to another iconic line from Casablanca: “Round up the usual suspects.”

Next, we see an officer who stops a “suspected” political refugee on the street and asks: “Can we see your papers?” The refugee bolts and is shot in the back after the officer declares, “These papers expired three weeks ago!” Within the context of unrestrained police powers, “your papers, please” is wielded like a weapon. It serves its purpose well in Casablanca, one of the first World War II war propaganda films produced by Hollywood in cooperation with the US Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures. As a symbol of corrupt, unchecked unilateral power, the phrase embodies something worth fighting against. After Casablanca, many World War II films began incorporating “your papers, please” as a film trope. The phrase evolved into an enduring cultural metaphor that concisely and viscerally conveys what we are not about here in America. This message still resonates today.

By the time we get to the end of the film, awash in a sea of fedoras and trench coats, the fog resplendent as a stylish film noir accessory, it is easy to forget that the plot revolves around immigrants and “papers.” Putting the love triangle aside, the plot unfolds within the context of a political meta-narrative: the desperate plight of political refugees from a war-torn Europe who lack the good fortune, wealth or connections to possess their “papers.” The film portrays the exiled and persecuted of all nationalities trapped in Vichy-occupied Morocco, devising escape schemes to the US, which symbolizes a dream of freedom. Casablanca, ultimately, is about immigrants seeking hope and redemption from discretionary abuses of power and the arbitrariness of having one’s life and fortunes tied to the necessity of having the right “papers.”

New York Times film critic Aljean Harmetz explains the film’s enduring appeal this way: “There are better movies than Casablanca, but no other movie better demonstrates America’s mythological vision of itself.” With the passage of “show me your papers” laws in Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina, among other states, state lawmakers are starting to run afoul of this vision, triggering a popular backlash. Sustained cultural protest to these laws preserves our vision of ourselves and what America should be.

Margaret Hu is a visiting assistant professor in the Program in Public Law at Duke University School of Law. Her research interests include the intersection of immigration policy, national security, civil rights and critical legal studies. Previously, she served as senior policy advisor for the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and also served as special policy counsel in the Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices, Civil Rights Division, US Department of Justice.

Suggested citation: Margaret Hu, ‘Show Me Your Papers’ Laws and American Cultural Values, JURIST – Forum, Nov. 15, 2011, http://jurist.org/forum/2011/11/margaret-hu-immigration-papers.php.

This article was prepared for publication by Jonathan Cohen, the head of JURIST’s academic commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to him at academiccommentary@jurist.org

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