‘Citizen U.S.A.’ Director Alexandra Pelosi on the One Trait All Immigrants Share

Filmmaker traveled country interviewing new citizens for HBO documentary premiering July 4

Alexandra Pelosi traveled the country interviewing new citizens for her new documentary, "Citizen: U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip," and found they all shared one trait.

They included Iraqi refugees in Nebraksa, Mexicans who crossed illegally into Arizona, a Kentucky paralympian from Nigeria, and a Buddhist monk in Utah. What did they all had in common?

"We like to make the distinction between immigrants we want and immigrants we don't want," said Pelosi, whose film debuts on HBO on the Fourth of July. "They all share one thing, and that's the work ethic. The taxi driver and the Ph.D.s share the love of America and the work ethic."

Also read: White House Nixes 'Colbert Report' Naturalization Ceremony

Pelosi's husband and co-producer, Michiel Vos, became a citizen after their children were born. They were inspired by the event to travel to naturalization ceremonies in all 50 states, interviewing other recent Americans. They found people who were grateful for things many Americans take for granted: free speech, clean water, police who respond when you call 911, the right to drive, gun ownership.

They tried to avoid the divisive issue of immigration, but it found them at an Arizona protest against the state's law requiring, among other things, that immigrants carry their papers at all times and that police question anyone they suspect of being in the U.S. illegally.

Pelosi, who has no plans to follow her mother, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, into politics, has no solution to the dilemma over who should be granted citizenship. "But a lot of people in Washington don't have the answer wither, because you see how broken the system is," she says.

She and Vos talked to TheWrap about what it means to become an American.

One of our freedoms as Americans is the right to complain, and we do it a lot. But your movie stresses the good things about the country. Did you decide it's so overwhelmingly good to be American you wanted to leave out the possible negatives?

Pelosi: The reason I left out the negatives in the movie was because I thought it was really contrarian to make a movie that was all positive about America because documentaries are always about things that are wrong with America. So I thought it was funny to make a movie that had nothing negative about America.

You get such the sense in the movie that this is the most free country in the world. But Michiel, you're from Holland. Holland seems pretty free.

Vos (taking oath as a U.S. citizen, right): Not as free as here. We can insult the queen, just like you can insult the president here. But here there is a feeling that is more of a reinvention of yourself or doing things you never thought you would be able to do. Several people in the movie refer to that: "I was always told by my teacher or my peers, you can do this, but not that."

In America there's just one playing field, and it's called the market. You can do anything you want, you can reinvent yourself, you can start over. Nobody's waiting here for you, but the gates at the same time are wide open. They welcome you but they also say, "Well, if you don’t want to do it there's a Korean, a Chinese — they're all competing with you."

The movie includes a group of Iraqi guys living in Nebraska. Do you they fit in there?

Pelosi: Yeah, because they watch "Friends." Everyone learns how to assimilate through watching television. Everyone thinks America is going to be like Hollywood, and when they get here they keep watching TV to find out how to be.

Vos: You see America for years on television. I'd seen America through the eyes of "The A-Team." Now I know America is not like "The A-Team." You think you know America before you get here.

Pelosi: Remember the first night, when you walked me home, and we talked about what TV shows we watched growing up? We watched all the same TV shows. And he didn't seem foreign to me.

People outside this country might look at the Arizona immigration law, for example, and think Americans are intolerant.

Pelosi: I was trying to avoid immigration because that's the issue that's tearing this country apart. I wanted to do a film about citizenship. … When I went to the ceremony in Arizona, there were protests out front. That same exact building where they do naturalization ceremonies is the exact building where a judge was determining the fate of the controversial immigration law. … I was trying to avoid controversy. I was trying to do a purely celebratory Americana film.

You also show people who are making obvious contributions.

Pelosi: Everyone talks about immigrants taking jobs, but there are a lot of jobs that America needs. Engineers. We still go recruiting Ph.D.s from other countries to cure cancer. We don't have a cure for cancer. We have a lot of people that have jobs here but no one's cured cancer. We bring in people that have ideas from other countries.

Vos: Newsweek had foreign-born Americans who are giving jobs, like Sergey Brin at Google.

Pelosi: My husband is a Dutch television correspondent. He's not taking any job away from an American. Because I don't really think there are any Americans that can speak Dutch and explain American politics to a Dutch audience.

To ask a possibly stupid question, does your mother ever want to retire? She's been in office since 1987.

Pelosi: If she were given a choice, she would prefer to be sitting at the pool with her grandchildren. She didn't keep the job to keep the job. They asked her to stay in that role. Her colleagues put her there. Who do you think wanted to lead a party that just got beaten that badly in an election?

She's just as happy now as she was as speaker. It doesn't make a difference to her whether she's in the leader's office or speaker's office, which happen to be two feet from each other. She's serving. In her eyes it's noble public service.

Vos: Have you seen the age of the average senator? She can stay in there for like 20 more years.

Pelosi: No, she's not.

"Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip" premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on HBO. A companion book will be released Thursday.

Photo credit for images of Pelosi at Mount Rushmore and in front of flag: Janet Van Ham, courtesy of HBO. Vos photo from film.