SUBJECTS — U.S. 1991 – Current; Hispanic & California;



AGE: 13+; MPAA Rating — PG-13 for some mild violence and language;

Drama; 2011, 98 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Note to Teachers: The U.S. is currently engaged in a wrenching debate about what to do with eleven million illegal immigrants living within its borders. This film puts a human face on what is otherwise an abstract term of vilification, leading the viewer to empathize with the character of Carlos, who is in the country illegally. While there is some truth to the claim that the movie provides arguments for one side in the immigration debate, the universal human truths shown in the film are important for a full understanding of the problem of undocumented people living in the U.S. This is true no matter what position a person ends up taking on the issue. Other films that perform the same function that teachers may want to consider include the classic, El Norte, and the more recent, Spare Parts.

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Carlos, an illegal immigrant gardener, is trying to raise his U.S.-born teenage son, Luis, in modern-day Los Angeles. At the beginning of the story, Luis feels alienated from his father who he sees as foreign and embarrassing. Luis is flirting with joining a gang. Carlos, striving for the American Dream, borrows money from his sister who is also living in the U.S. He uses the money to buy a truck and the gardening business of his employer, who has saved enough money to retire to Mexico. When the truck is stolen, Carlos and his son team up to look for the thief, growing closer in the process. By the time they find their man, the truck has been sold to a used car dealer and the money sent to Mexico. Carlos steals the truck back, but is stopped for a traffic violation and deported to Mexico. As the movie ends, Luis is living with Carlos’ sister and doing well in a new school, no longer at risk of joining a gang . . ., and Carlos is starting the trip back across the border, trying to illegally return to the U.S.


Selected Awards: 2013 Annie Awards: Best Animated Effects in an Animated Production; Storyboarding in an Animated Feature Production;

Featured Actors: Demian Bichir as Carlos Galindo, Jose Julian as Luis Galindo, Joaquin Cosio as Blasco, Delores Heredia as Anita, Gabriel Chavarria as Ramon.

Director: Chris Weitz


A Better Life shows the modern-day struggles of illegal Hispanic immigrants, for whom ordinary problems can easily turn into personal catastrophes and who cannot go to the police or the courts for protection.

Students will have a visceral appreciation for the struggles of illegal Hispanic immigrants to the U.S.


Carlos steals the truck that was stolen from him. Normally, one would go to the police, but an undocumented person can’t do that.


Watch the movie with your child and talk about the immigration debate.


German immigrants have made great contributions to U.S. society. Migration from Germany to the 13 original Colonies and later to the United States was larger than the flow of people from any other single country, England and Mexico included. In 2010, some 49.8 million Americans claimed German heritage, the largest national ancestral group in the country. (Hispanics as a group were only slightly larger, with 50.5 million people, but Hispanic-Americans come from many different countries.) In more than half the 3,143 counties in the U.S., more people trace their family origins to Germany than to any other single country. (See U.S. Ethnic Mix Boasts German Accent Amid Hispanic Surge by Frank Bass, Bloomberg Business, March 5, 2012.)

It is interesting to note that German immigration to the U.S. has, at times, been controversial. In 1751, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was concerned about “the German invasion” In his book Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Franklin wrote:

[W]hy should the Palatine Boors [the Germans] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.

In a letter to his friend Peter Collinson in 1753, Franklin again complained about German immigrants, writing:

Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation…and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain. . . . Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make modest use of it. I remember when they modestly declined intermeddling in our Elections, but now they come in droves, and carry all before them, except in one or two Counties. . . . In short, unless the stream of their importation could be turned from this to other colonies, as you very judiciously propose, they will soon so outnumber us, that all the advantages we have will not, in My Opinion, be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.”

Obviously, Benjamin Franklin’s fears about the Germans proved to be unfounded.

“At one point in “A Better Life,” an emotionally resonant film about how we live now, the director Chris Weitz opens a scene with a pair of adorable, gap-toothed little girls belting into karaoke microphones, giving their charming all to a song with un-self-conscious gusto. He then cuts to three bald men, crammed tattooed arm to tattooed arm on a couch, who are beaming at the girls with barefaced and shared delight, lighted up by the grace of children behaving like children. It’s touching and startling to see these men show such tenderness at this innocent spectacle, especially because all three are gangbangers.” Drifting Apart, Struggling Together by Manohla Dargis, N.Y. Times, 6/13/11


Introduction to the Movie and Comments Afterwards

Before showing the movie, tell the class that it presents an emotional appeal (pathos) from one side in the debate over what to do with the eleven million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. and that no matter how they come out on this complicated question of public policy, they need to consider the human truths presented in the film. Also, make sure that students understand the concept of “birthright citizenship.” In the film, the son, Luis, has birthright citizenship.

After students see the movie, consider presenting the information in the Helpful Background section above and comment that for illegal immigrants, ordinary problems can easily turn catastrophic because the immigrants cannot seek protection from the courts or the police.

Another way to start a discussion is to ask students what they think about five common misperceptions about immigration and then to provide them with the facts. Students could be asked to research these misperceptions and report their findings to the class.


After students watch the film, engage the class in a discussion about the movie. Use some or all of the discussion questions below.

1. What are some of the public policy issues that factor into the debate on what to do with illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America who have settled lives in the U.S.?

Suggested Response:

The following is not meant to be a comprehensive list and it is probably influenced by the author’s view that illegal immigrants already in the U.S. who have no record of a felony criminal conviction and who have jobs or who are part of a settled family, should be given a path to citizenship. The following concepts are important to any debate and should be part of any full discussion:

Illegal immigrants come to the U.S. because they need jobs, and there are jobs here that Americans don’t want or which offer wages so low that American workers won’t take them. Obviously, if there are jobs for which there are no available workers, then immigration is good for the economy. On the other hand, if illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from U.S. workers because the illegal immigrants are willing to work for low wages, this benefits business owners and householders at the expense of U.S. workers.

Laws that fly in the face of economic and demographic realities are difficult to enforce and often fail.

Immigrants generally add value to the economy.

American businesses would be hurt if all the illegals were rounded up and deported.

The U.S. is a nation of immigrants; all citizens of the U.S., if you go back far enough, are the descendants of immigrants.

Poor immigrants from Mexico and Central America put extraordinary demands on healthcare systems and the school systems, and ultimately on American taxpayers.

Illegal immigrants broke the law and allowing them to stay erodes respect for the law.

Giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship favors them above people who followed the rules and obtained their right to be in the U.S. legally.

2. Who are the economic winners and losers from illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America to the U.S.?

Suggested Response:

To the extent that the illegal immigrants fill jobs that U.S. citizens will not take or jobs for whom there are not enough U.S. workers to fill the available positions, illegal immigrants benefit the entire economy. Illegal immigrants are generally younger than the overall U.S. population and help to shoulder the social security burden for those U.S. citizens who are retiring. To the extent that illegal immigrants compete with U.S. citizens and legal residents for jobs, their presence in the country benefits employers at the expense of workers by depressing wages. Thus, the winners would be employers of all types, from families that hire maids to businesses that hire low wage workers. The losers would be U.S. citizens or legal residents who might want those jobs, sometimes at a higher wage. In addition, it is important to note that over time the incorporation of immigrant groups to the U.S. economy has led to the creation of wealth that benefits everyone. Historically, all immigrant groups to the U.S. have contributed to the country’s economic success, and Hispanics are no exception.

3. What is the role of birthright citizenship in illegal immigration?

Suggested Response:

Birthright citizenship is the doctrine, now a constitutional provision in the 14th Amendment, that a person born in the U.S., no matter what their parentage, is a citizen of the U.S. The chief role that it plays in illegal immigration is that when undocumented immigrants give birth to children in the U.S., families could be divided if the parents are deported. The children, as American citizens, have the right to remain in the country. Those in favor of more restrictive policies on immigration claim that people of child-bearing age come to the U.S. to have children who will be U.S. citizens.

4. Imagine the following two children if they were forced to move from the U.S. and live in Mexico: the first is a 15-year-old child born in the U.S. who has lived in the U.S all his or her life attending U.S. schools; the second is a 15-year-old child who was born in Mexico, smuggled into the U.S. by his or her parents at the age of five, who has lived in the U.S. continuously from age 5 to 15 attending U.S. schools. How will their reactions differ or will they be same?

Suggested Response:

Their reactions will be the same; they will feel they were living in an alien country.

5. What is the difference between refugees seeking asylum because of political or religious persecution or extreme violence in their communities and economic migrants? Should they be treated differently?

Suggested Response:

A refugee seeking asylum because of persecution has traditionally been more favored than economic refugees. However, what happens when it’s a matter of starvation or a stunted life for the children who would not receive adequate nutrition or education in their home country?

6. Do you agree that immigrants seeking to say in the U.S. should be required to learn to speak and read English with at least a minimal proficiency?

Suggested Response:

This proposition is the subject of debate. The argument for it is that English is required in most parts of the country for people to be understood and to deal with businesses and the government. The argument against is that, as a practical matter, many immigrants, legal and illegal, cannot speak English.

7. To what extent do you believe that immigrants have an obligation to assimilate into U.S. society, i.e., to adopt the values and customs of the majority culture?

Suggested Response:

This question is the subject of debate. While there are many aspects of different cultures that give variety to life that can be retained, such as different ways of celebrating holidays, family customs, language spoken in the home, etc. there are certain core values of the majority culture that should be adopted by immigrants. TWM has identified the following, there are probably more:

a. the belief that “all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,”
b. adherence to the rule of law;
c. tolerance of and equal treatment for people despite differences in race, religion, national origin, and gender;
d. the balance between the rights of the majority to rule and the rights of individuals or minorities set out in the Constitution;
e. a respect for freedom of speech and of association;
f. that people who work hard and play by the rules should be rewarded.

The basic values of U.S. Culture change over time. For example, many would include, within #3, that tolerance and equal treatment should be extended to LBGT people; but whether the belief that these people should be treated equally is a basic value which defines what it means to be part of the U.S. culture is another question. It would be a good exercise for the class to list those values which are core American values and those which are not.

8. What should be the goals of U.S. immigration policy? These goals are not always consistent and compromises may have to be made between them.

Suggested Response:

There are several, and there is no one correct response to this question. Here are a few suggestions. First, there is the goal of attracting to the U.S. skilled workers and motivated workers who will contribute to the economy. Second, there are the humanitarian goals of allowing people who are suffering from political persecution or who are at risk of extreme violence to come to a safe place to live. Another humanitarian goal is to unite families by allowing families to bring other family members to the U.S. A third goal is to limit the number of immigrants to a number that can be absorbed into U.S. society without changing the nature of U.S. society. A fourth goal is to keep out terrorists and those who would threaten our security.

Questions the Relate Specifically to the Movie:

9. In this story Carlos lost his truck, lost the money he borrowed from his sister, and was deported. However, in the process of looking for the thief, he gained something that was very important. What was it?

Suggested Response:

At the end of the film, Carlos had the respect and love of his son, who is now removed from the gang influence and can try for the American Dream. While the setbacks that Carlos suffered were substantial, regaining his relationship with his son was probably even more valuable than all that he lost.

10. What are Carlos’s important personality traits?

Suggested Response:

There are a number of them. (1) he wants a better life for his son; (2) he keeps on trying, even after major setbacks such as being arrested and deported; (3) he is an empathetic person, for example, he stops Luis from beating the man who stole the truck; (4) he is poorly equipped to be a father and doesn’t know how to properly raise his son.

See Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1. Write an essay suggesting what the U.S. should do about the 11,000,000 illegal immigrants in the country. Make the arguments for your position and rebut what you expect the opposition to your program would be.

2. [This is a follow-up to the first assignment] Design an action plan to sell your proposal to the American people.

3. Write a _______ page summary of the history of immigration in the U.S. from colonial times to the present.

4. Write a _______ page summary of the history of immigration laws in the U.S. from colonial times to the present.

See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


Spare Parts: Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream


For other movies on the Hispanic experience in the U.S., see My Family, Stand and Deliver, Spare Parts, Underwater Dreams, McFarland, U.S.A., For Love or Country — The Arturo Sandoval Story, West Side Story, and El Norte. For college-level classes, check out Lone Star, an excellent film with a unique twist on white-Hispanic relations in a small Texas town.



Multimedia: Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.

Reading: Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.

Writing: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening: Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


The websites which described in the Links to the Internet section.

This Learning Guide was been written by James Frieden and Deborah Elliott. It was last revised on December 7, 2015.

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