Reading “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)”

Image from the video “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)”
Image from the video “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)”

Less than a week before the 4th of July festivities, Lin-Manuel Miranda dropped the first video for The Hamilton Mixtape. This isn’t a coincidence: in fact, it’s perfect timing because, as a nation, we urgently need to reflect on the values that make this country what it is. The song “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” inspired by the same verse from Hamilton’s “Yorktown” (The World Turned Upside Down)” is a call to recognize the sacrifices and achievements of immigrants in this country and beyond. If the basic premise behind Miranda’s smash-hit musical escaped anyone – that is, that this country has been built by immigrants – then the song and accompanying video “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” makes it very clear. In fact, the narrative behind this powerful video provides a concrete bridge between past and present by highlighting the presence and contributions of immigrants today. Here, I want to focus on the visual language of the video—it’s use of symbols and images—to humanize those who often remain invisible in our society.

The train.

Most of the video is filmed inside a train and each car tells a different chapter of the immigrant experience. The train crosses borders and it becomes a metaphor for the nation that is constantly moving forward, propelled by a force greater than itself. But the train-nation is divided; not all of its passengers can look out the window. Many remain trapped, invisible, inside its cargo wagons, living in overcrowded and poor conditions. The train, like this nation, is full of people of all races, ethnicities, ages, genders, nationalities, and religions. Diversity is the strength of this nation, the video suggests. The fact that immigrants travel in trains across Central America and Mexico on their way to US border—and that many die in the process—makes this a compelling symbol. It reminds us that we’re all immigrants. The trains circling the globe in the last scene remind us that migration is universal and eternal. Human beings have always and will always continue to be creatures of movement.

The flags.

As the cameras move through the train cars, we observe a group of people sewing American flags in a space that evokes a sweatshop. The use of this setting aims to call attention to the dangerous, abusive, and poor working conditions to which many immigrants from the Global South are subjected to worldwide as a result of neoliberalism and globalization. The multiple American flags that we see at different stages of completion embody a profound irony; they are items to be consumed by Americans as an outward sign of their patriotism, but they have been produced precisely by the hands of individuals who are not accepted as part of the social fabric of this nation because of their race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or citizenship status. Yet, while they remain symbolically excluded from the US social imaginary, their labor and sacrifice render them integral to the foundation and continuing survival of this nation.

The faces

Following this logic, the video highlights a multitude of faces of all walks of life. As the camera continues to pan through the different compartments of the train, we see individuals engaged in the jobs that we commonly tend to associate with immigrants. We see fruit pickers at work while Mexican-American singer and rapper Snow Tha Product (born Claudia Feliciano) sings her lines. We see men and women working in construction, a meat packing facility, a kitchen, and a hospital. We see maids, nannies and nurses, that is, we see those who usually remain hidden from view—the invisibles—performing the tasks that allow the country to move forward.

The fence.

Right before we hear Rizwan “Riz” Ahmed, an English rapper and actor of Pakistani descent, sing his lines, a scene of warfare interrupts the song. A bomb has gone off and a man rescues his little boy from under the debris. As the man carries the boy through various train compartments, they come across groups of terrified refugees sitting on the ground. They finally make it to a fence, and they cross it, like all the other refugees around them, in order to save their lives. Fences are used to mark artificial borders, and for this reason, they have become universal symbols of unauthorized migration and border crossings. But as the video reminds us, for those fleeing war and persecution, crossing borders is often the only option for survival. Given the highly anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, and anti-Islam sentiments that characterize our government and society today, we would do well to remember the constant threats that millions of people face worldwide due to war, terrorism, state violence, and other forms of violence. The video humanizes the invisible faces of war, and offers a message of compassion and solidarity toward those who are most vulnerable.

ICE.

When Puerto Rican rapper and writer Residente (born René Pérez Joglar) sings the last verses of the song—in Spanish—we are reminded that the Spanish language was spoken in what is now US territory even prior to this country’s founding, along with indigenous languages. His verses provide a Latin American and Latino/a perspective on what it means to be an immigrant in this country. Accompanying his powerful lyrics are a series of scenes of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents knocking on doors and violently apprehending some of the workers while they’re sleeping. We see them arrested and aggressively pushed into a train compartment as they likely await deportation. This last scene unveils the violence to which many immigrants—with or without authorization—are subjected to at the hands of law enforcement. It is a reminder of the work that we still need to do as a society to recognize the humanity of those who are most criminalized.

The video speaks for itself, and it doesn’t miss a chance to address the most controversial issues that we are currently facing, not only nationally, but also globally. Lin-Manuel Miranda and his production team, K’naan, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC, and Residente, have given us a chance to reflect on who we are as a nation, who we want to be, and how we want to be remembered by future generations. Asserting the humanity of all immigrants, this compelling video allows us to imagine ourselves as a more compassionate nation.

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