I’d sort of forgotten that we were getting yet another Men in Black movie next spring, but that news reminded me just how good the first flick was on immigration. The MIB are, after all, effectively a full-service immigration agency, monitoring the, as Kay puts it, “1500 aliens on the planet, most of them right here in Manhattan. And most of them are decent enough, they’re just trying to make a living.” They deliver alien babies. They get alien ambassadors courtside tickets to choice basketball games. They solve the 1977 New York City blackout when some immigrant with a twisted sense of humor gets out of hand.
The movie’s immigrants aren’t merely saintly. They’re cranky newsstand attendants, family people who break laws to try to get their wives and kids out of the way of harm, cranky elementary school teachers. The Bug’s a conservative nightmare of unending anchor babies. The movie literally begins with a hyper-violent alien posing as a Mexican illegal immigrant, hiding in the back of a truck that’s supposed to be smuggling back across the border. But Kay treats the actual humans in the shipment with dignity and cracks down on the alien because he’s a repeat offender who’s proven he will be nothing but detrimental to American society. Jay aces his entrance exam when he shows restraint in a shooting exam, saying: “Well, first I was gonna pop this guy hanging from the street light, and I realized, y’know, he’s just working out. I mean, how would I feel if somebody come runnin’ in the gym and bust me in my ass while I’m on the treadmill? Then I saw this snarling beast guy, and I noticed he had a tissue in his hand, and I’m realizing, y’know, he’s not snarling, he’s sneezing. Y’know, ain’t no real threat there.”
It’s a smart, compassionate approach to enforcement. There’s no assumption that aliens are wrong to come to the U.S., or that we can keep them all out. Instead the characters operate with the sense that aliens will keep trying to make a life here and it’s better for everyone concerned if we try to make that immigration process as orderly and efficient as possible. And this whole gestalt is bolstered by a healthy sense of humanity’s place in the universe. To some aliens, we’re “nothing but undeveloped, unevolved, barely conscious pond scum, totally convinced of their own superiority as they scurry about their short, pointless lives.” To others, we’re a refuge. But either way, we win by letting folks in and building manageable lives, both because they contribute to our society, and because they give us a sense of where we stand in the universe.