Film Shows Making of An Immigration Policy

Posted March 23, 2010 at 4:33pm

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) career-long fight to reform American immigration policy is being explored in a new documentary, “The Senators’ Bargain,” set to air tonight on HBO2.

The film, directed by Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini, follows Kennedy and his staff as they fight to pass immigration reform in 2007. The documentary has incredible access to closed-door meetings with staff and advocacy groups, discussions in Kennedy’s hideaway and phone calls with the White House. Camerini said this access was granted as Kennedy’s office grew more comfortable with the crew over the course of six years of filming — most of which isn’t seen in this film but will be shown in later documentaries. The crew first met Kennedy when he was working with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to pass an immigration reform bill in 2001. That bill ultimately failed, but Kennedy remained devoted to the cause.

“We said, ‘If [President] George Bush walks into your office and makes the most remarkable offer that ought to be the headlines of every newspaper in the country, no one will ever hear it from us.’ People trusted us so much,” he said.

The result is an inside look at how a bill is negotiated. The film shows how important bipartisan sponsorship is as well as how amendments known as “poison pills” can destroy months of hard work. It explores the compromises — even the ones that gut portions of the legislation — Members and staff must make in order to effect change.

Robertson and Camerini hope that the film will remind Americans that democracy does work and that there are people on Capitol Hill who are working hard to better the nation.

“Our answer to how does democracy work or not is that it really does and the problem isn’t in Washington but is with the American citizens,” Camerini said. “I think a lot of us have the assumption that once we vote it’s over, and if something gets too nuanced I think a lot of people in the middle fall out.”

At the center of the documentary is the idea of compromise. A major point of contention is the immigration point system that assigns point values to workers’ skill sets, degrees and family already living in the United States. Kennedy’s staff and those who work for immigration advocacy groups are shown in conversation explaining what they are willing to cut from the bill to appease certain Members as well as what they are willing to add. The negotiations take months; ultimately, the bill fails.

While the legislative process may seem overwhelmingly complicated to some, Camerini thinks the film shows that anyone can master it.

“It is a complexity you can master,” he said. “Twenty-five-year-old kids are in there running this country, and if they can figure it out so should you.”

“The Senators’ Bargain” is the 12th part in “How Democracy Works Now,” a series of films exploring the legislative process as it relates to immigration. The other 11 parts have yet to be released, though the filmmakers plan to screen them in Washington later this spring.

“In some of the other shows we dive into the politics a little more. Show number three is Republican primaries in Kansas,” Robertson said. “It’s about if you don’t get elected you won’t get to work on any issue. It’s the intersection of policy and politics.”

The film will debut at 8 tonight on HBO2 and will air at 6 p.m. Friday on HBO Latino.