Martin Sheen on Deportation, Immigration, and the Soul of a Country

Martin Sheen on Deportation, Immigration, and the Soul of a Country

Martin Sheen on Deportation, Immigration, and the Soul of a Country

The United States is turning its back on history by denying our immigrant past.


President Trump has claimed that his immigration policies would target the “bad hombres.” The government’s decision to remove Magaña Ortiz shows that even the “good hombres” are not safe. Magaña Ortiz is by all accounts a pillar of his community and a devoted father and husband. It is difficult to see how the government’s decision to expel him is consistent with the President’s promise of an immigration system with “a lot of heart.” I find no such compassion in the government’s choice to deport Magaña Ortiz.
Judge Stephen Reinhard
US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, May 30, 2017

Andres Magaña-Ortiz did everything right. He raised a loving family, built a solid business that employed his neighbors, gave his heart, soul, and treasure to help his adopted country, and tried to become a citizen. But the paperwork didn’t pan out, and on July 7, 2017, this husband, father, and deeply entrenched member of his community was deported to a country he barely remembered.

This story shook me to my core. As a father of four, I cannot begin to imagine what it feels like to be relegated to bystander status, watching as my family gets torn apart.

When Judge Reinhardt issued his scathing indictment of our immigration system in his decision on Ortiz’s case—a decision he was legally bound to make, despite his strongest moral objections—I knew we had to make a film. Martin Sheen had a similar reaction. We got to work.

Below is a conversation we had afterward.

Robert Greenwald: In terms of Judge Reinhardt’s statement, is there anything in particular that jumped out at you? That reached you intellectually or emotionally?

Martin Sheen: It forces all of us to really consider our vision of what our country is about. The United States of America exists because people were fleeing oppression. That was the basis for constructing this new colossus, if you will, this new country, an experiment in democracy.

And that seems to have been thrown away now, and it’s done with such impunity. I dare say that I don’t know how many of these people that are making these decisions in this administration, particularly in the Justice Department, have any connection whatsoever in their own personal lives to immigration. In their own families, or friends. How far back do they go with their own nationality?

RG: Yes…

MS: And I think that’s very important. Because I came to this issue right at the first step. I’m a first-generation American, both of my parents were immigrants. And they came here during very difficult times in the countries they left.

My father was Spanish and he was born the week that the United States declared war on Spain in 1898. When he came to the United States with his brother in 1914, he was a 16-year-old boy trying to immigrate. They were refused admission to the port of New York because there was still a quota on Spaniards, not Hispanics, but Spaniards, because of the Spanish-American War. And so he and his brother got on the next boat to Havana, and my dad spent three years working in the sugar-cane fields of Havana and came into the United States through the port of Miami as a Cubano.

My mother on the other hand was sent out of Ireland, her family was very involved in the Irish War of Independence from Great Britain, and when that seemed to have been achieved, a civil war broke out and her family found themselves on the losing side, or the weakening side. So they sent my mother to live with a cousin in Ohio in 1921. She was going to wait it out, and in the meantime she decided to become a citizen, and she met my father in citizenship school—they used to have citizenship schools in those days. She taught him how to speak English.

So my roots are very shallow in this regard. I was the first one in my family born in the United States. My mother had 12 pregnancies, 10 survived. Nine boys and one girl, and I’m the seventh son. And I was the first one actually born in the United States that survived. This issue, American immigration, is very close to home.

And what’s missing on the official level, and this is exactly what Judge Reinhardt was talking about, is common sense. Common compassion. That’s what’s missing on the official level.

RG: In terms of common sense, the human element. I remember distinctly when I read Judge Reinhardt’s statement in the newspaper and the first thing I thought of was my four children. And how I could barely tolerate the thought of some force breaking us apart, pulling me away, destroying our family fabric. And then to see Mr. Ortiz and his family, it just shook me to my roots. So I wonder how you connect as a father to this story?

MS: Well, of course, I can appreciate what you’re saying there. If we don’t make it personal, then it’s impersonal. If it’s impersonal, no one really cares. So I think we have to make it personal.

The deeper we accept the issue on a personal level, the more we are prepared to fight for it. The Irish tell a story of a man who arrives at the gates of Heaven, he asks to be let in. St. Peter says, “Of course, just show us your scars!” The man says, “I have no scars.” St. Peter says, “What a pity! Was there nothing worth fighting for?”

RG: Yes, beautifully said. In terms of that idea, something worth fighting for… we get asked this question a lot—what keeps you in the fight for the long haul?

MS: Very succinctly—it is my faith. And my unbridled optimism. If we have anything to contribute on a daily basis to the state of the world, we have to be optimistic despite what’s going on.

We have to be optimistic, because if we’re not then we’re like all the rest piling up on the sidelines, all the people who have walked away. We have to stay in the fight for our own sake, and if we abandon that, then there’s something lost… a measure of spirit that cannot be articulated.

When we know we are fighting on the right side, even though very often it’s the losing side, it’s the thing that gives our lives meaning. I think if we can identify ourselves in that way, that makes it clear we’re not fighting because we want to be on the side that is winning. On the contrary, we fight for what is right because that’s all that gives our lives meaning. And it’s going to cost you something. And if it doesn’t, then you’re left to question its value. So this fight has great personal and cultural value. And spiritual value. I couldn’t walk away from it any more than I could walk away from my own family.

RG: Anything you would say to Mr. Ortiz, to his family, to Judge Reinhardt?

MS: It’s important that they know they are not alone in this. That when one is lost, it’s a very important signal to all of us that we better get cracking on this issue.

Because this is just one case that we know about. We know there are thousands of others we don’t know about and we won’t find out about for months or years in the future. It’s going on in every state of the union, not just Hawaii—and some people who have been deported have been here a very long time.

We have to stay together as a community and support sanctuary, which means sacred territory. In the center of our community, there must be room for the most vulnerable. And we have to stand with them, and it has to cost us something. If it doesn’t cost us something, then we question its value.

The success that our country enjoyed in the early part of the 1900s was due in large measure to the millions and millions of immigrants who poured in from all over the world, who built the steel mills, and the roads, the cities—all the infrastructure. Every bit of it, the immigrants had a hand in it.

We stand on the shoulders of immigrants. It has been said we’re a nation of immigrants, and we continue to be a nation of immigrants. We have taken the very best from all the other countries in the world and that reflects the very best of what we are.

And that’s why I think we continue to be an inspiration to the world. And that is in jeopardy now. At one time, immigrants from all over the world—Europe, Asia, Africa, South America—they knew the United States was holding its doors open longer and wider than any other nation on Earth at that critical time, and that’s what made us who we are today. We can’t forget that. That’s a legacy we really have to protect.

So anyone who is deported and disregarded for their life, their contribution, their family, and their simple humanity—it is really an insult to who we are as a nation.

RG: Beautifully said. Is there anything else you want to share?

MS: It’s important that people know about the “Know Your Rights” card from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles too. It has everything on what to say and what not to say for immigrants. It’s a very important document.

RG: Thanks, Martin. I’ll see you on the barricades in the next battle.

Please sign the petition to help the Ortiz family—

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It takes a dedicated team to publish timely, deeply researched pieces like this one. For over 150 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and democracy. Today, in a time of media austerity, articles like the one you just read are vital ways to speak truth to power and cover issues that are often overlooked by the mainstream media.

This month, we are calling on those who value us to support our Spring Fundraising Campaign and make the work we do possible. The Nation is not beholden to advertisers or corporate owners—we answer only to you, our readers.

Can you help us reach our $20,000 goal this month? Donate today to ensure we can continue to publish journalism on the most important issues of the day, from climate change and abortion access to the Supreme Court and the peace movement. The Nation can help you make sense of this moment, and much more.

Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy