A U.S. border guard turns against his corrupt management and coworkers to protect an illegal immigrant woman and her baby. [Dir: Tony Richardson/ Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Valerie Perrine/ 107 min/ Action-Adventure/ Pro-Immigration, Working for Government]
“Hell, Texas has been running on ‘wet’ labor since before I was born. Does pretty damn good too. You think this country [could] get by without ‘wets’? You go out in some boiling hot day and pick your own lettuce and tomatoes and beans and onions.” So says one of the border guards depicted here, in a candid moment that reveals a general cynicism among the guards about what they are being asked to do. That cynicism creates an opening for bribes, a good thing in this case because it enables at least some immigrants to get through. But it’s also a violent, treacherous situation that attracts the worst possible element and degrades everyone involved.
This film is highly sympathetic to the plight of immigrants. The representative immigrants at the center of the story are two young Mexican siblings and a baby. They barely survived a recent earthquake and are now poor and homeless. Over and over again they try to enter the U.S. in the hope of building a better life, but the difficulties of illegal immigration put them at the mercy of the most unscrupulous people. The brother gets killed, the baby is kidnapped, and the sister is forced into prostitution.
Enter our hero, a border guard with a conscience. He takes pity on the sister and tries to help her. But to do so he must turn against the local Immigration & Naturalization Service border guard operation, which is heavily involved in drug-trafficking, immigrant-transporting, and baby-kidnapping schemes. All this makes for an effective criticism of immigration controls—emphasizing the pain they cause individuals, their tendency to corrupt, and their impossibility to enforce.
The film’s not bad as entertainment either. Jack Nicholson is very credible as the blue-collar hero, unhappy in both his marriage and his job, but trying to do what he sees as right in spite of it all. Also in the plus column is the film’s catchy theme song. Not to be confused with the 1979 Telly Savalas film also entitled The Border.