Walter Vale is a lonely man. With his wife having passed away and son living in London, his love of life is tested by a lack of activities, short of his job as a Connecticut College professor of economics. He attempts to take up piano lessons but ends up going through many instructors before finally giving it up.
He then is asked by his department head to give a presentation at New York University on a article he helped co-author. Walter reluctantly agrees and ends up shacking up in a Manhattan condominium he has owned, but rarely visits, for thirty-five years only to find out it is occupied by Tarek, who hails from Syria, and Zainab, Tarek's Senegalese girlfriend, who thought they were renting it from a friend of theirs.
Walter feels sorry for the couple and allows them to stay in his condo until they can find shelter elsewhere. Tarek and Walter quickly become friends, despite Zainab's reserved demeanor obviously suspicious of Walter's kindness. Since Tarek and Zainab are both undocumented immigrants, she is the more cautious of the two.
Thanks to Tarek (who is a musician) showing Walter how to play his bongo drum and the two playing together in a couple of park venues, Walter's depression and loneliness subsides since he has a new lease on life as well as an appreciation for a new genre of music.
Unfortunately, Tarek ends up getting arrested in a subway station and is then imprisoned in an immigrant detention center in Queens. Tarek's mother, Mouna, shows up shortly after Tarek's arrest concerned for her son's well-being due to her failed attempts at contacting him.
Walter tries to help Tarek further by hiring an immigration attorney and being the courier of notes from his mother and Zainab to him.
While slow at times, this film is well acted and well made. The Visitor makes another important point about the immigration debate going on in this country as well.
As it turns out, Tarek discloses to Walter during a visit to the detention center that his father was arrested and imprisoned for writing a letter published in a Syrian newspaper deemed criminal by the Syrian government.
This obviously is the reason why Mouna left Syria with Tarek since they could be targeted by the Syrian government for arrest and monitoring.
Soon after arriving in the United States, Mouna tried to apply for asylum or immigration documents so she and Tarek could remain in the U.S. legally. According to the attorney Walter hires, the cruxt of Tarek's defense hinged upon a rejection letter U.S. immigration officials had to send them. If Mouna did not recieve it, her son stood a chance of remaining in the U.S. If not, Tarek would be deported.
In the film you see the hypocrisy of U.S. immigration policies. Posters line the wall of the Queens detention center praising immigrants yet they are present in an institution set up by a system hostile to their ability to live legally in the U.S.
Its obvious that Walter benefited from his meeting and befriending Tarek, Dainab and Mouna. Yet, sadly, U.S. immigration policies do not take into account instances like Walter's situation and force people to have to choose between staying in their home country where they face persecution or flee to the United States where they can live but have to look over their shoulders at every opportunity to avoid being caught should they decide to remain here in defiance of U.S. immigration laws.
An individual (like Walter) and immigrants (like Tarek, Zainab and Mouna) have a fundamental, moral right to their lives, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is spelled out in the document that laid the philosophical foundation of the idea of our Republic, The Declaration of Independence which, among other points brought up against King George III, says:
[The present King of Great Britain] has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither...
As The Visitor points out, U.S. immigration laws are a sad joke and a perversion of Thomas Jefferson's libertarian vision for our country.
I certainly hope this movie will contribute to Americans re-asserting Jefferson's vision of the free society America can and should be.
Especially when it comes to immigrants and immigration.