With thousands of options to choose from, do you still find yourself thinking, “there’s nothing to watch”? Maybe it’s because there are so many options that it’s hard to find the ones worth watching. Choose wisely. Just like the old adage, “you are what you eat,” the media we consume can influence who we become and how we see the world.
Research by the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project at USC Annenberg demonstrated that by and large immigrant characters on television don’t reflect reality. Instead, they tend to reinforce false stereotypes, distorting audiences’ understanding of the immigrant experience. Follow up research by Define American further showed that what we watch can influence our attitudes toward immigrants and even our behavior.
The good news is that it’s not all “junk food.” Despite a long history of immigrant characters being played by non-immigrants who don’t share their genuine accent, background or even ethnicity, more and more immigrants are able to tell their own, authentic stories. Instead of Mickey Rooney’s “yellowface” depiction of I. Y. Yunioshi Breakfast at Tiffiany’s, we have Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever.
To help you find those authentic stories, we have compiled a watchlist of comedies, dramas and documentaries that prominently feature immigrants and immigration storylines in film and TV. From goofy sitcoms to children’s animated shorts to intense docudramas, these stories highlight immigrants in a diverse set of contexts and perspectives. Happy viewing!
An American Tail
An American Tail is a great introduction to 19th century immigration for children. When the “Mousekewitzes,” a family of animated mice living in Russia, move to the U.S., they deal with sweatshops, poverty and family separation. A band of villainous cats provide an allegory for oppression and bigotry for the mouse heroes. These tough topics become more palatable and accessible for children when filtered through the fun, friendly animation.
Several generations of a Jewish Polish family wrestle with assimilation, family conflict and the American Dream in mid-20th century Baltimore. This film sensitively portrays both the cultural and the intergenerational differences that arise as the family chases prosperity and security. It also serves as a prequel to the movies Diner and Tin Men but focuses more closely on the immigrant experience.
This film, starring Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, follows an Irish immigrant to 1950s Brooklyn. Like many young women, she sets out in search of work and a better life but finds there are more obstacles than she expected. The film balances its portrayal of the residents of New York City, who are in turn inhospitable and supportive. It’s a family-friendly introduction to mid-century European immigration to the United States.
The Joy Luck Club
Based on the classic book by Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club traces the lives of four women who have immigrated from China and their daughters. By interweaving flashbacks to the lives of the women before they came to the U.S., the movie helps the viewer understand the push and pull factors that lead to immigration, as well as the challenges that are faced by people after they arrive. It also focuses on the unique experiences, challenges and strengths of female immigrants.
Man Push Cart
A Pakistani immigrant struggles to make a living from a food cart in post-9/11 New York City. The film was praised by reviewers for its observational and realistic approach, giving the audience the impression that they’re peeking into the life of a real person. This film avoids idealizing or stereotyping its lead. It intentionally avoids the “exceptional immigrant” trope, instead encouraging the audience to respect a man performing menial labor for little respect or pay.
Fans of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake will also enjoy this adaptation. Ashoke and Ashima are immigrants to New York from India, but their son, Gogol, feels largely cut off from his Indian heritage. His conflicting desires to push away and embrace his culture make up the core of this film. The Namesake offers a strong depiction of the tension between assimilating to a new culture and retaining a heritage culture.
The famous graphic novel Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, was adapted into a feature-length animated film in 2007. Marjane, the Iranian protagonist, chafes under a regressive Iranian regime and longs for freedom, culminating in a move to the United States. This is an excellent film for exploring the variety of “push factors” that can lead immigrants to leave their countries of origin. This film is animated but not for children, as it explores both sexuality and violence under a totalitarian government.
The Sun is Also a Star
The Sun is Also a Star integrates the topic of immigration into a teen romance drama. Natasha is an undocumented immigrant about to be deported with her family to Jamaica. Daniel is falling in love with her. The teens have a short window to navigate family conflicts, their personal differences and an unforgiving immigration system. This is a great film for building empathy with a capable, likeable protagonist who happens to be undocumented, especially for teens who might relate to the teen leads.
Under the Same Moon
In this movie, a child immigrates from Mexico to the United States by himself to rejoin his mother. Along the way, he encounters both people who seek to take advantage of him and people who seek to help him. While told from the perspective of a child, this film deals with some heavier themes and is more appropriate for older kids.
This Pixar short was designed as a metaphor for the family immigration story of the writer and creator, Edwin Chang. A child and his grandmother live at the bottom of a deep chasm and plan their escape. The grandmother must make sacrifices to ensure her grandson can have a better life. Wind is a fanciful introduction to immigration and children might have to unpack it with an adult in order to grasp the themes.
Bob Hearts Abishola
This sitcom follows Bob, a U.S.-born entrepreneur, who falls in love with Abishola, a Nigerian-born nurse, after she cares for him following a heart attack. The show mines their cultural differences for humor, but respects both characters’ and their families’ beliefs. Bob Hearts Abishola is a rare depiction of Black immigrants, who are infrequently represented in media despite making up one in 10 Black Americans.
Fresh off the Boat
Based on Eddie Huang’s memoir Fresh off the Boat, this sitcom follows a pair of immigrants from Taiwan as they navigate raising children and starting a “cowboy-themed” restaurant in Florida. The show is sympathetic and thoughtful in its portrayal of the perspectives of both the immigrant parents and the more “Americanized” children. Issues of assimilation and representation are prominent. When this sitcom premiered in 2015, it was only the second U.S. sitcom to focus on an Asian-American family.
Jane the Virgin
The American remake of the popular Venezuelan telenovela features three generations of a Venezuelan-American family in Florida. The culture clash between the traditional, immigrant matriarch, Alba, and her more Americanized child and grandchild is a central plotline of the show. Alba’s slow, difficult progression toward achieving her citizenship was praised in particular by Opportunity Agenda for both its realism and how it didn’t wholly define her multi-dimensional character.
A Korean-American immigrant family running a convenience store may sound stereotypical, but this Canadian sitcom shows the full humanity behind the archetype. The characters wrestle with cultural differences, discrimination, family conflict and more while keeping the family store afloat. The show is adapted from a play of the same name, written by Ins Choi, himself an immigrant from Korea to Canada. Choi called the story a “love letter to [his] parents and to all first-generation immigrants who call Canada their home.”
This anthology show, created in part by actor and immigrant from India Kumail Nanjiani, sets out to depict a diverse set of immigrant narratives based on true stories. Eight half-hour episodes follow eight different immigrants through important chapters in their lives. Characters include the child of deported business owners, a gay Syrian refugee seeking safety, and a Chinese mother wrestling with her and her family’s understanding of the American Dream. The show made headlines when, in a moment of political resonance, filming had to be reworked to accommodate a Syrian actor who was unable to come to the U.S. to work under current immigration policy.
Master of None
Stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show features a diverse array of characters, including the main character’s parents, immigrants from India, and a friend whose parents immigrated from Taiwan. Ansari, who plays the lead, dedicates a standout episode, “Parents,” to exploring the migration stories of his father and his friend’s father. Children of immigrants watching the show responded to the episode with enthusiasm, saying that they had “never seen anything so relatable on television before.” It’s a story that rings unsurprisingly true, given that Ansari cast his own mother and father in the parental roles.
Never Have I Ever
Mindy Kaling’s semi-autobiographical Netflix show follows the daughter of Indian immigrants as she navigates sex, adolescence and the loss of her father. In an interview, the showrunner described having a writers’ room with multiple children of immigrants who contributed authentic anecdotes and details to make the story more compelling. This show has the potential to be a funny, relatable story that could connect teenagers with an experience removed from their own.
One Day at a Time
This Netflix reboot of the classic 1970s sitcom focuses on three generations of a Cuban-American family, the matriarch of which is an immigrant. The show depicts a loving, close-knit family wrestling with issues of mental illness, addiction and sexuality. Fans launched a campaign to save the show after Netflix cancelled it, citing its compelling and unfortunately rare depiction of a Latinx family, leading to the show’s resurrection on Pop TV. It can serve as a lighthearted introduction to the immigrant experience.
Party of Five
The writers of Party of Five updated the premise of the classic 1970s television show in this reboot. Instead of losing their parents in a car accident, the five Accosta siblings are left adrift when their parents are deported. Family separation is a hot button issue, and this series sensitively depicts the human fallout of the family’s rift. The show aired just one season before getting cancelled, but it packed a lot of thoughtful discussion of contemporary immigration issues in its 10 episodes.
Ramy features a family of Muslim, Egyptian immigrants living in New Jersey. Ramy, the title character, grapples with coming of age as a millennial, immigrant Muslim-American. Over the course of the series, he struggles to reconcile his faith, sexuality and family traditions. Creator Ramy Youssef, himself a child of Egyptian immigrants, plays the title role. He also shares the focus with the rest of his fictionalized family, giving a more Americanized, feminist sister and a closeted uncle opportunities to share their perspectives on the Muslim immigrant experience.
Kal Penn, the son of Indian immigrants, created a sitcom that follows a group of immigrants in New York City. He also stars, drawing on his real-life political experience working in President Obama’s administration to portray a disgraced former politician attempting to regain political favor by coaching former constituents on their paths to becoming citizens. The show balances goofy fish out of water humor with the very real perils the immigrant students face, including poverty, discrimination and ICE enforcement.
Superstore is a kooky workplace sitcom that takes on some big topics. Fan-favorite character Mateo, played by Nico Santos, is a queer, undocumented, Filipino immigrant whose ongoing search for stability and legal status becomes a prominent plot thread. Santos, a gay Filipino immigrant himself, says he received an outpouring of messages from people who saw themselves in his character. In interviews, Superstore writers have discussed reaching out to immigrants and immigration professionals to refine their plotlines. The show isn’t afraid to get overtly political, but the focus remains on portraying the characters as full, funny human beings.
The lead of this NBC medical drama is a Syrian refugee. When Dr. Bashir flees Syria for Canada, he’s stuck working in the kitchen of a Middle Eastern restaurant before a chance encounter with an injured hospital worker lets him prove his medical skills. Even once he returns to working in a hospital, the show takes care to explore his struggles as a doctor in a new culture and the challenges he faces as a refugee. The show captures the reality that immigrants are overrepresented in both the food and health care industry, as well as the uphill battle many immigrants face in translating their education and credentials to a new country.
Documentaries and Docuseries:
I Learn America
I Learn America is a kid-friendly introduction to five children of immigrants adapting to their new country. Facing History and Ourselves developed an accompanying learning guide to help students learn from the film. The film and its supplemental educational materials prioritizes “youth-led” storytelling. This documentary is aimed at young people but could also be helpful for teachers seeking to better understand and serve their immigrant students.
This two hour Frontline documentary delves into the policy side of immigration. It aired in 2015, and therefore doesn’t cover many key developments in the immigration landscape since then, but it provides a clear-eyed look at how immigration policy is shaped and settled behind closed doors. Unlike most of the films listed here, it focuses more on the policymakers who shape immigration policy than the immigrants affected by it.
Documentarians embedded within Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) for years to capture this series’ footage. The mechanics of the organization’s enforcement actions are shown from start to finish in stark, sometimes upsetting detail, and the human cost is evident. This series is appropriate for anyone seeking to understand how contemporary immigration practices are carried out.
Liberty: Mother of Exiles
This feature-length film traces the history of American immigration through the history of the Statue of Liberty. The famous figurehead has been a symbol of welcome and a site of protests, both of which the film examines thoughtfully. The documentary also explores the meaning of the poem inscribed on the statue’s base, “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, from which the film derives its name: “A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame / Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name / Mother of Exiles.”
This series follows eight undocumented immigrants in the U.S. It also interviews immigration attorneys who tackle common questions about undocumented immigrants, like, “Why don’t they come the right way and get in line?”. In a piece for Time magazine, Selena Gomez shared that she was drawn to join the project as a producer because members of her own family came to the U.S. without documentation and she recognized their stories in the footage she was shown.
The New Americans
PBS’s seven-part documentary series takes an unusual approach, offering minimal narration or interviews as it tracks the lives of immigrants over four years. Instead, the immigrants to the United States are observed at work, at home and over the course of the rest of their daily lives, affording the viewer an intimate and personal look at their experiences. It doesn’t explicitly delve into politics or policy, instead creating a humanizing chronicle of individual lives.
Strangers in Town
For anyone looking for a portrayal of what it means to be a “welcoming community,” this film could provide some answers. Garden City, Kansas was challenged and ultimately strengthened by several unexpected waves of migration. The response of U.S.-born residents runs the gamut, but the benefits of welcoming their new neighbors becomes clear.
Four undocumented immigrant teens collaborated in an underwater robot competition, went up against a team from MIT and won. This documentary film follows their progress, setbacks and eventual triumph. It’s a warm, inspiring look at the contributions and accomplishments of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The story was also the inspiration for the fictionalized film Spare Parts.
Filmmaker Theo Rigby followed six DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, also known as Dreamers, as they work, learn and pursue their dreams. The film provides an intimate look at a group of young people who are often treated like political pawns. To learn more about the project, watch our webinar with Rigby as he shares stories and discusses how teachers can use this material in the classroom or curriculum.