The Visitor

by Russ Roberts on July 16, 2008

in Film

I saw The Visitor last night, the story of an economics professor who gets entangled with a couple of illegal immigrants and whose life changes because of his relationships with them. A few observations.

There aren’t many movies about economics professors. Through most of the movie, Professor Vale is portrayed as an emotionally dead person. (There are other reasons for this beside his profession but I don’t think it’s a coincidence.)

The only book title in Professor Vale’s office I could actually identify is The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman.

It was strange to watch a movie that is has a political message that I like. In this case the political message is that illegal immigrants are mostly harmless and are harassed by a faceless bureaucracy that treats them badly. It was a weird feeling. Usually I enjoy a movie despite its politics. In this case, even though I am in sympathy with the message, I found it a bit heavy-handed. I wonder if anyone who is anti-immigration or anti- illegal immigration would find themselves reconsidering their position after watching it.

The acting and dialogue are suberb and there are many wonderful moments in the film. But at times, I found the professors hesitancy painful rather than engaging.


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Tom Kelly July 16, 2008 at 5:25 pm

My 14 year old son and I saw The Visitor about a month ago. He usually doesn't like art house fare but he really loved The Visitor.

Given that many of the families in our neighborhood own service businesses that are dependent upon immigrant labor, even at 14 my son realizes how important immigrants are to our local and national economy.

He was appalled as I that an immigrant like the one in the film should face such hardship just because he was born on the outside of certain lines on a map.

EDM July 16, 2008 at 5:40 pm

I agree it was almost painful to see someone so afraid to live. I attributed it more to the death of Vale's wife more that being an economist.

For another take on the immigrant theme "In America" (2002) was excellent, and in many ways reminded me of my immigrant childhood.


Paul July 16, 2008 at 5:45 pm

Russ — I saw the movie a few weeks ago and thought it was wonderful.

Though I consider my views on the issue to be more nuanced, I'd put myself in the anti-illegal immigration camp. The director's attempt to make political points were not very subtle and off-putting at times. The camera lingering over the artistic representation of the Statue of Liberty was one of those moments.

But like you, I tend to discard a film's political message when trying to digest it. Otherwise, there wouldn't be very many movies I'd be able to watch and enjoy.

Ray G July 16, 2008 at 8:02 pm

I only just now watched the trailer, but his emotional status seems to be what Hollywood would naturally cast as any kind of professor.

Especially given the plot, and their wanting to juxtapose a stuffy white guy next to the vibrant immigrant folk.

As far as the view point, personally my only problem with the whole immigration issue is that assimilation is discouraged in our modern times in favor of multi-culturism.

I believe that all of our present problems concerning immigration in fact stem from this anti-assimilation agenda, and whether or not the film would be tarnished for me would depend on how heavily they pushed the multi-cultural part of their message (if at all since being pro-immigration is not at all equivalent to being a multi-culturalist).

Russ Nelson July 17, 2008 at 2:31 am

@Paul: nobody wants illegal immigration. Those of us who are in favor of open immigration want it to be legal. Those against it want the immigration to stop.

save_the_rustbelt July 17, 2008 at 9:25 am


You should hope that none of the illegals buys or steals your Social Security number, suddenly it may not seem so neutral an issue.

If I were a poor Mexican I would cross the border as well. This does not void the law.

We should have a robust immigration program, allowing access to people from all over the planet – legally.

vidyohs July 17, 2008 at 9:34 am

I am surprised that no one (including our host) has picked up on the most obvious politically correct twist, the lie, to the whole thing. That being the title "The Visitor".

Such an innocuous term for what is in reality a thieving trespasser, a burglar, one who is guilty of breaking and entering. So, the title itself is the first step in varnishing over the criminality that put the intruder into that apartment and getting you to accept that you and most people have an immigrant phobia.

Shame on you!

Frank July 17, 2008 at 10:04 am

I haven't seen the film, but I checked out its description on Netflix while adding it to my queue. I agree with the film's call for more immigration, but the description said the immigrants were squatters in the professor's apartment. Even if immigration should be more open, it doesn't excuse violating someone else's property and I would (assuming the Netflix description is correct) make this clearer than saying that the professor becomes "entangled" with the illegal immigrants.

RE the bit about stolen social security numbers–a legit concern, but if we allowed more people into the country legally and furnished them with some sort of taxpayer id number then there would be fewer stolen ssn's.

Russ Roberts July 17, 2008 at 12:41 pm

For what it's worth, the squatters don't realize they're squatters. This is done, I suspect, to make them more sympathetic than they otherwise would be.

As for the theft of my ss#, yes, that would annoy me. I set against that all the services I have received from illegal immigrants who have worked on my house and who have done work for others.

I should add that I don't know if the immigrants who have worked on my house are illegal but I presume some of them are. If anyone wants to work for me at a wage I am happy to pay then I am happy to hire them.

save_the_rustbelt July 17, 2008 at 1:17 pm

"As for the theft of my ss#, yes, that would annoy me."

After dealing with the IRS and one or more state income tax department for two or three years to clean up the mess you would be a lot more than "annoyed."

And when the illegals work for you I presume you are issuing the proper W-2 or 1099 forms? Carrying proper liability insurance and/or workers compensation, in accordance with state law?

vidyohs July 17, 2008 at 1:23 pm

Hey Russ,

Guess I'll have to see the movie for an explanation of this "the squatters don't realize they're squatters."

But, don't misinterpret my comment(s) as a position on immigration. My position is very close to yours, perhaps more lienient in some respects and perhaps more restrictive in others.

Goods immigrate to this nation, why not people?

Ideas immigrate to this nation, why not people.

We sort out good goods from bad goods, and we sort out good ideas from bad ideas, we can certainly do the same with people.

Our only problem with immigration lies in the welfare state and a left wing reluctance to arrest, prosecute, and punish criminals. (My opinion)

Alberto July 18, 2008 at 12:34 am

"Such an innocuous term for what is in reality a thieving trespasser, a burglar, one who is guilty of breaking and entering."

Burglars enter your house to steal your property. Illegal immigrants enter your country to provide services that you and others are willing to pay for, directly or indirectly. Big difference.

Since you're so into law and order you must be among the one percent (or less) of drivers who obey posted speed limits on the interstate. The other 99% seems perfectly willing to ignore the law when it suits their purposes.

A speeder — such an innocuous term for a menace to public safety, a potential murderer on wheels!

vidyohs July 18, 2008 at 7:37 am

Tsk Tsk Alberto,

You demonstrate the reasoning power of a child and put it on exhibit for the world.

Is not the free unauthorized use of your property stealing? Is not the wear and tear of the free unauthorized use of your property, thus devaluing it, stealing your property? By such free unauthorized use one steals.

There are so many ways to steal, Alberto.

For instance your trivial illogical reply has stolen five precious minutes of my time.

Are you friends with Gilduck, by chance? You share obvious traits.

Tis a pity you did not bother to read and comprehend my last post to Russ.

alberto July 18, 2008 at 11:05 pm

Vidyohs, I'll answer you when you tell me whether you're among the 1% who obey traffic laws, or the 99% who give society the middle finger and say that their time is worth too much to drive the speed limit.

Since you didn't address my point I must assume you ignore the law like almost everyone else. Thus you are no better than a common thief, stealing from me by raising my insurance rates. When do you plan to repay me?

vidyohs July 19, 2008 at 8:28 am

I don't believe I asked you anything more than a rhetorical question about a relationship with Gilduck and to a rhetorical question I desire no answer nor expect one.

The muirduckesque attempt to divert the topic off into a meaningless and borrrrrrring manner is too obvious.

Besides which you have be as stupid as muirduck to believe that my attitude towards speed laws affects "your" insurance rates.

But who cares, that has nothing to do with your foolish post regarding my statements about the title "Visitors" being an innocuous way of slicking over an act of trespass, theft, and breaking and entering.

Your wrong to make the blanket statement that illegal immigrants come here to do the jobs we won't do for ourselves.

Some immigrants come here to work and better themselves, some come because this is the land of the big PX, some come because they see this as the most naive nation on the planet and just ripe for criminal activity, and last not all illegal immigrants are Mexican.

All in all Alberto……..kick back, get a beer, relax, and wait for the conversations to descend to your level.

Ray G July 19, 2008 at 4:10 pm

If I understand Russ correctly, it was written into the script that the illegals didn't realize they were "squatters" – or better put – that they were using someone else's property.

That part of the movie would annoy me to the point of distraction I believe. Like one of those action movies where vehicles go through all matter of frame breaking, body-rattling torture to magically appear in the next scene with nary a scratch. It just isn't realistic.

One doesn't have to subscribe to the larger theory of natural law to believe certain knowledge to be inherent in the human condition. Murder, cheating and stealing are without debate, universally wrong. Toddlers understand "mine" before they understand much else, and no one enjoys being tricked or cheated.

Likewise, it is impossible for rational, reasonable adults to ignorantly be "squatters."

There is a difference in going over the speed limit – within reason – and theft or illegally entering a sovereign country. Entering the prof's apartment is in principle exactly the same as entering a sovereign country without permission.

More to the genuine differences between entering a country illegally and breaking the speed limit: the posted speed on a given road is not a naturally known or obvious thing. Is there really a great difference between 55 and 60? Even the police allow for "reasonable and prudent" speed as opposed to a strict enforcement of the limit.

Whereas theft is theft. Land or homes are difficult to steal of course, but the unlawful use of property is still wrong and not at all equivocal to going 65 in 55 zone.

To miss this difference is to completely misunderstand the larger issue altogether.

America is a nation of immigrants, but America must remain a sovereign nation in order to continue to be a place where people are so desperate to get to.

I'm a registered Libertarian in full support of an open immigration policy, but such a policy cannot be at the expense of our national sovereignty.

Henri Hein July 19, 2008 at 4:59 pm

> It just isn't realistic.

Ray, for the record, I thought it was portrayed realistically in the movie. The immigrants rents from a con-man who claimed to own the temporarily vacant apartment. Once they realize it's actually the professor's apartment, they immediately move out. (We never meet the con-man).

Yes, it's a bit heavy-handed and obviously meant to place sympathy with the couple, but it worked for me.

Having dealt extensively with the INS/BSCIS/USCIS over the years, I can say that the portrayal of the immigration service was sadly descriptive.

I didn't think the writers were kind to the Professor character, but I also thought he needed to be that withdrawn for the story to work. Richard Jenkins does an amazing job with the material.

Overall, the movie gets a thumbs-up from me, but I was already pro-immigrant.

vidyohs July 19, 2008 at 10:16 pm

"Likewise, it is impossible for rational, reasonable adults to ignorantly be "squatters."
Posted by: Ray G | Jul 19, 2008 4:10:17 PM

I agree with this and it was what I implied when I told Russ that I would have to see the movie to see an explanation of how one can unknowingly squat in NYC in a decent apartment and not know that something is wrong with the scene.

Even an immigrant, educated to a decent degree, would soon understand that a fully furnished (very nice) multi-bedroom apartment in a decent neighborhood in NYC is going to cost as a rental well into the thousands, many thousands….it ain't no $400 dollar fleabag.

Then couple that with the fact that (from the trailer we see the professor going to NYC only carrying a bag or two – which is a sure tipoff that there is clothing and home making things already there, pots, pans, towels, sheets, etc. etc., things that just do not come with your everyday rental.

No, an educated person would know he was in a situation that did not make sense, and if he remained, I would say he knows he is "squatting".

All in all I still say, without viewing, that the movie seems to be a clumsy attempt at indoctrination and glosses over the criminality of the "Vistors".

I do not have a liberal, conservative, libertarian view of immigration. I have a practical view.

Simply put, if a man/woman comes here to work, works, and is self supporting then they belong here. If a man/woman comes here and in anyway tries to obtain or accepts from government assistance in support then they do not belong and should be deported.

Just to even it out, I also feel the same way about our home grown folks as well. If a man/woman will not be self supporting then starvation and a grave/big fire takes care of the situation. If it is good enough for nature, therefore for the secular evolution believing, then it is good enough for me.

Ray G July 20, 2008 at 2:32 am

The con-man thing I didn't know about, but it still makes for an unrealistic plot element. Obviously the characters thought that they had the apartment to themselves. Ignorance as to NYC rental prices is actually quite believable, I was blown away when I found out what some parking spaces go for. But there's clothes in the closets, toiletries in place, etc. Still isn't too realistic.

As for the larger issue however, if the movie doesn't address the core problem of multi-culturalism displacing assimilation, then it's just more propaganda. From what I've read here in these posts, and reading up on it on the web, it seems that they are being portrayed as victims of the system which isn't accurate of our real problems.

Alberto July 20, 2008 at 9:55 am

So, once we establish that you're as much of a scofflaw as any illegal immigrant — or at least, that you're just as willing to rationalize your lawbreaking as any common criminal is — you want to shut down the discussion.

To Ray's point that "the posted speed on a given road is not a naturally known or obvious thing." Can you really be arguing that? What are all those signs with speed limits on them? Seems pretty obvious to me. Speed limit 65. Actual traffic speed, closer to 85.

And then these people go home and type blog comments about how illegal immigrants are breaking the law! Pot, meet kettle.

thinaar July 20, 2008 at 10:30 am

I did see The Visitor, and had mixed feelings, too. I thought the twist about the con-man taking their money was only partially unrealistic – it was unrealistic because the main character had no idea people were living in his NYC apartment. To me, as a resident of the city, that's totally not viable. Even if you didn’t visit it yourself for months on end, you’d have someone look in on it, or ideally have someone sublet it (especially an economist!).

As a side note, the storyline – “emotionally stunted white guy gets schooled in matters of the heart and soul by instinctive, generous, people of color” – was pretty hackneyed, but the amazing acting made it watchable.

The part about the immigrants not knowing that the apartment was somewhere they shouldn't have been is entirely plausible in this city. You just can’t imagine how seemingly randomly one can fall into either very good or very bad luck here. And the idea that they were paying bargain basement rents for that palace? Welcome to the problematic world of rent regulation.

My question, though, is about the comments posted regarding assimilation versus multi-culturalism: who are we to decide how or how much one ought assimilate?

One of the things I love about New York is the cultural diversity. I love that people in my apartment building speak English, Hatian Creole, French, and Spanish. I love the eighteen different kinds of ethnic food I have within walking distance, and I love the variety of music, art, and commercial activity I am privy to.

As long as folks obey our laws, the rest is up to them, right? And if, by not learning English, say, they cut themselves off to certain economic opportunities, isn't that their problem?

vidyohs July 20, 2008 at 11:03 am


I was with you up to here:
"And if, by not learning English, say, they cut themselves off to certain economic opportunities, isn't that their problem?
Posted by: thinaar | Jul 20, 2008 10:30:43 AM"

My supportive position on open immigration does not extend to having no "official" language in which to communicate. Unity demands understanding, ease of understanding I might add.

Ours is the only nation in the world legally naive enough to think putting up directional signs, organizational signs, information signs, et. al., is a financially viable thing to do. And if in Spanish and Chinese, why not 64 other different languages…..hey why discriminate: Or better yet, have one official language that we all learn and use when communicating with the public, and let people alone when they speak their alternative languages with their friends and family.

Example of the potential harm not learning one unifying language:
In the 1980s two Vietnamese immigrants, in an act of road rage, forced an American off the road in Chicago and beat him to death.

At their trial they claimed as a defense that they could not read the road signs and didn't understand……and unbelievably a professor from the U. of Chicago took the stand and said, "It was an outrageous act of discrimination to expect immirgrants to learn English."

We Americans may be the only Christian (any) nation on Earth stupid enough to ignore the lessons in the Biblical tale of the Tower of Babylon.

When people can not communicate and understand only bad things can happen.

We go to another country we adapt and learn their language, when someone comes here they should adapt and learn our language. It does not mean unlearning your language or being prohibited to speak it, just that all have opne thing in common, a language that all understand.

Personally I think the majority of immigrants are motivated to learn English and the only real political and philosophical roadblack placed in their path is coming from the stupid left leaning ACLU, teachers unions, and general homegrown idiots. The more victims they have to represent the better they can advance their agenda.

vidyohs July 20, 2008 at 11:05 am

"Ours is the only nation in the world legally naive enough to think putting up directional signs, organizational signs, information signs, et. al., is a financially viable thing to do."

insert the words in "multiple languages" after the last comma and before the word is.

Hammer July 21, 2008 at 9:31 am

Alberto, just to make certain we are on the same page here, you are saying that all law breaking is the same, regardless of the law and its relative validity?

So, should a cop see you speeding, he is justified in shooting you just as though he had seen you in the process of cutting down a cafe with an AK-47?

Or are all crimes not the same? Hell, most don't even care about minor traffic violations. Even the states generally have admitted at one time or another that traffic tickets are just sources of income, not safety concerns they are particularly worried about.

Eddie July 21, 2008 at 12:07 pm

I saw the movie about a month ago, and have been recommending it to everyone I know.

However I always wonder why economist are made out to be so gloomy, I've met many economist and most of them crave excitement in their life's much like the main character in the movie.

Vidyohs July 21, 2008 at 8:39 pm


Alberto is just giving the average knee jerk reaction to speed law BS. It is obvious that he hasn't spent 5 seconds actually thinking about speed laws and how they become assigned to roadways.

You're right in that speed laws are in general a means of gathering revenue. Here in Texas it is an actual fact that in our traffic code the section regarding speed regulation mentions strictly commercial vehicles, and zero mention of privately owned vehicles.

Do our judges honor the letter of the law? Nooooooooo!

But, anyway, any objective examination of the nation's apeed laws will reveal that they are arbitrarily assigned and arbitrarily enforced, evidence offered is your cite of the fact that "traffic enforcers" will tell you that they ignore the signs and give motorists leeway in accordance with their arbitrary personal judgment.

Further evidence is offered in recent history with the arbitrary lowering of the speed limits on national highways to 55 MPH and threatening any state that didn't follow suit with a cutoff from federal highway funds, to the arbitrary raising of those speed limits some 20 years later back to the 65 and 70 MPH levels they had been. All of that and it had nothing to do with safety.

Alberto, I think, must be a standin for Gilduck, since he hasn't added his infantile BS to this discussion yet.

dekora August 11, 2008 at 6:27 pm

Quite nicely written actually, i like it. :)

solfilm August 12, 2008 at 8:33 pm

This was actually a good read, thanks for writing it. :)

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