San Francisco Native Alexandra Pelosi Chronicles the Naturalization Process in the HBO Documentary 'Citizen U.S.A.'
Alexandra Pelosi loves to travel. It was that passion, on full display in the new HBO documentary Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip, that partly inspired the Emmy-winning filmmaker (2002's Journeys with George) to crisscross America, attending naturalization ceremonies and interviewing the country’s newest citizens – among them, a nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico and young Iraqi refugees in Nebraska.
Yet the last 24 hours have proven a nightmare. Despite Pelosi being featured in this month’s Sky, the official magazine of Delta Air Lines, the carrier has lost her luggage. Making matters worse, her baggage-claim number isn’t in their computers. (“Delta has broken my spirit,” she laments.)
But here she is, elegantly outfitted in Loehmann’s best and her sister’s tight-fitting shoes, surrounded by well-wishers, publicists, family and press to host U.S.A.’s San Francisco premiere at the Legion of Honor Museum in Lincoln Park.
Besides giving her an excuse to tour the country, U.S.A. allowed Pelosi, 40, the youngest of House Minority Leader Nancy’s five children, to explore the naturalization process undergone each year by nearly a million people from more than 150 countries, including her Dutch-born husband Michiel Vos, whose swearing-in ceremony opens the film.
Pelosi doesn’t consider U.S.A. a political statement exactly, though immigration legislation remains a hot-button topic – particularly in Arizona, where the San Francisco native found throngs of protesters opposing the state’s controversial Senate Bill 1070, which discourages newcomers to the U.S. from staying in the state.
If you want a debate about immigration reform, this isn’t the movie for you, she says. Rather, it’s an uplifting look at the nation’s newest citizens, the ones who were persistent enough to clear all the legislative hurdles, the ones who still believe in the American Dream. And, as the country looks back on its 235th birthday, it’s a reminder to the native-born how much is sometimes taken for granted.
On what Pelosi discovered touring America:
“We expected to see the cultural melting pot in the big cities, but we didn’t expect to see it in Tupelo, Mississippi or Butte, Montana. In every state, we found a diverse collection of new Americans from over 100 different countries.
"As we made our way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, we discovered that more and more immigrants are migrating to the suburbs. This confirms the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data that shows immigrant populations rose more than 60 percent in areas of the country where they made up less than five percent of the population 10 years ago.
“The one thing that every new citizen agrees on is that those who were born in the U.S. don’t realize how good we have it. Our new fellow countrymen appreciate the freedoms here way more than the people who have been here for generations – and can help us see all that we take for granted, [whether it’s] electricity, uncensored Internet access, religious tolerance, democracy, free refills or the right to read books, smoke and exercise as much as we like.”
On her decision to check politics at the door for her latest documentary:
“I don’t have the stomach for politics anymore. That’s not who I am. Michael Moore is great at [making movies] about that, but that’s not me. I’m not looking to stir the pot, but at the same time I’m not going to make a film about gardening. I want to talk about the world we live in.
“This isn’t a film about immigration, this is a film about citizenship. If you want to watch a movie about immigration, you’re going to be disappointed. The controversy surrounding immigration is tearing us apart, and I wanted to avoid that as much as possible – and even then, we saw it in Arizona.
“But the fight is about the journey from visa to green card, and who gets the green card. I wanted to show what happens after the green card, to pick up part of the conversation that we rarely hear. The people on TV news shows are always complaining about the government’s handling of immigration, but they never tell us about the success stories. That’s what this film is about.”
On the process of becoming a citizen:
“The first thing [the government] asked my husband was to see his tax returns. They want to make sure you’re going to pump money into the economy. So the system works for the people who already make good money, the people who can pay their way. Of course, who gets to stay and why is very controversial.
“I’m not naïve. I’m not going to suggest the system is perfect – it’s unfair on many levels. But when we talk about who stays, the conversation focuses on the people in the service industry. People don’t think about the PhDs who come here and create jobs, and the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who come here and build businesses.”
On the cynicism among the native-born about the American Dream:
“I saw in Time Magazine a ‘Pessimism Index,’ and so many Americans think the country is going down. According to Bill Maher, we’re becoming a third-world country. Well, we’re not as good as we used to be, that’s true. But just ask the immigrants – America is still a much more desirable place to be than so many other countries. Here we have plumbing, water, 9-1-1, fair taxes. These things are taken for granted.”
On the tie that binds the newly naturalized citizens she met:
“It’s the work ethic – immigrants have a stronger work ethic. My husband still works the 2 a.m. shift, and it’s because of that mentality. For them, this is the fulfillment of a dream, and it’s a dream they believe in, something they’ve worked hard to achieve.”
Citizen U.S.A. debuted on HBO on July 4. It will air again throughout the month. For showtimes, click here. To purchase an accompanying book about Alexandra Pelosi’s 50-state road trip, click here.