Detroit Dreaming

In the critically-acclaimed 2008 film Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a recently widowered auto assembly worker and Korean war veteran coming to grips with the moral and economic decline of his beloved Detroit and the seeming disappearance of the “American Dream.” As his fellow white neighbors take flight from blighted suburban Detroit, they are replaced by recent immigrants from Asia. Haunted by his memories of war and “not by what [he] was ordered to do, but by what [he] wasn’t ordered to do,” Eastwood’s character gradually begins to accept the new cultural landscape springing up around him.

When he is befriended by his new Hmong neighbors, who speak a different tongue and feast on strange delicacies, he becomes rejuvenated and empowered. By the end of the film, Eastwood’s character sacrifices his own life in a Dirty Harry-style showdown, so that a Hmong neighbor girl and her brother can find peace, and achieves personal and patriotic redemption in the process. He bequeaths his prized Gran Torino to the brother, to the disappointment of his own family who seem to take their American way of life for granted, and in the final scene we see the car being lovingly driven off, as it becomes a symbol for the passing of the torch from the old generation to the new.

I was reminded of Gran Torino yesterday when I read an article in the New York Times which reported that Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan was requesting the federal government to set aside up to 15,000 visas for foreign nationals willing to live and work in Detroit. Those visas would go to persons in the employment-based second (EB-2) preference category, i.e., advanced degree professionals or persons of exceptional ability. Governor Snyder, a Republican, believes that replenishing the ranks of his city by importing the best and brightest minds to Detroit could reverse the city’s economic slide as more jobs are created and the city’s tax base is increased. Opponents of Governor Snyder’s plan counter that before giving out visas to foreigners more needs to be done to ensure that those Detroit residents without employment can find suitable jobs.

Governor Snyder has seized on an idea that could gain widespread acceptance in other states and that will certainly challenge Congress to come up with a plan for revising our immigration laws in order to stimulate the American economy. His proposal puts the federal government in the untenable position of being asked to favor one state, indeed one city, over others. It may not work out in practice, but the Governor’s message is simple: Congress needs to act now to award more green cards to foreign talent who study and graduate from our colleges and universities so they can stay and contribute to rebuilding our economy instead of taking their American education back to their home countries.

In the final, apocalyptic moments of Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s character confronts his past and America’s future and dies in a blaze of glory, armed with nothing but a cigarette lighter. Through his selfless act of bravery, a brother and sister find peace and the ideal of America as the land of opportunity is renewed. While it need not be as dramatic as that, it is time for Congress to take similar heroic actions by passing immigration reform that recognizes the contributions of hardworking immigrants and that secures America’s rightful place as the greatest economy in the world.

Timothy D. Widman is aSan Jose Immigration Attorney and the owner of the Law Office of Timothy D. Widman.