An American Tail: Today’s Immigration Crisis Through the Lens of the Animated Classic

Matt Swisher
9 min readJan 15, 2019


The other night, my wife and I decided that it was time to introduce our children to a classic animated movie from our childhood. An American Tail is one of those movies that sticks with you as a kid because one of the most terrifying things I could imagine as a child was being separated from my parents.

Watching it as an adult brings a whole new perspective to the movie. As we watched it, I couldn’t help but see some obvious parallels to today’s immigration crisis in America. A crisis that is manufactured on some levels, but a very real one that is affecting the lives of Americans all over because of the fight in Washington, D.C. that has led to a government shut down.

What I would like to do in today’s post is look at our current state of affairs in light of the story of Fievel and the Mousekewitz family.

Violence at Home

If you are unfamiliar with An American Tail, the story follows a Russian family of mice, the Mousekewitz family, who flee their homeland following an assault on their village.

While not much is noted about this assault in the movie itself, given the timeline of the movie, this assault references the Cossacks, a group of people in Southern Russia and the Ukraine, who were known for their horsemanship (they set fire to the town on horseback) and military skill.

The Cossacks were known for carrying out anti-Semitic massacres throughout Russia in the late 1800’s. It was a Jewish genocide before the Nazis even thought about using concentration camps in WWII. And while it may not have been sanctioned by the government, the government did nothing to shut it down, thereby implicitly giving their approval to what was happening.

In recent months and years, similar acts of violence in Central America have led to an influx of refugees traveling to the U.S./Mexico border.

In the so-called “Northern Triangle” (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador), gang violence has caused people to flee their homeland in record numbers. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the number of people seeking refuge in nearby countries increased 2,249% between 2011 and 2016.

For those who are wondering why they are coming to the United States and not other Central American countries, Amnesty International cites a report from the UNHCR that asylum applications have increased 432% in Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama. People fleeing violence and seeking a better life elsewhere is not solely a U.S. problem. It is affecting countries throughout Central America.

In spite of what some people may think, these are not people who are just poor and looking for a better financial situation. They are people who are trying to escape escalating acts of violence, including a ballooning homicide rate marked with unimaginable brutality in some cases , increased recruitment of children into gangs, and sexual assaults.

A Washington Post article from October says this about those who are coming across the border right now: “The migrants coming today are increasingly Central Americans seeking asylum or some form of humanitarian protection bearing stories of torture, gang recruitment, abusive spouses, extortionists and crooked police.”

When faced with such violence, people are forced to make a difficult choice.

The Difficult Choice

After the attack at the beginning of the movie, the Mousekewitz family decides to uproot their entire lives and travel to America. It is not an easy journey for the Mousekewitz family.

They get on a boat crossing the Atlantic with mice from other countries with their own sad tales of interactions with cats. They are all looking for freedom and the chance to start over with the promise of a better life where there are “no cats in America”.

On the voyage, a terrible storm strikes, Fievel’s curiosity gets the best of him, and he goes onto the deck during the storm. In spite of his father’s efforts, Fievel ends up getting washed out to sea, and the family mourns the loss of their young son.

For many people, leaving their home in Central America is not the preferred situation. Let’s face it, nobody wants to leave their home. It is where we are most comfortable. It is where we make our memories. It is where we spend the most time with our families. We work hard to build our homes. It is the place where we can find the most peace… until it’s not.

And yet, many people in Central America feel as though their best option is to leave their home, travel hundreds of miles and hope they are allowed into a new country to restart their lives. That is a difficult choice, and making that choice to do what is best and safest for themselves and their families in many cases has to be the hardest thing that they have ever done.

Let’s think about this for just a minute. If people are going to make a trek of hundreds, if not thousands, of miles, on foot in a lot of cases, and with their children in other cases, don’t you think they have good cause for leaving their homeland?

I find it ironic that people wonder why some live in terrible parts of the city, where shootings are common, schools are under performing (more as a result of environment than the teachers themselves in many cases), unemployment is high, and gangs are recruiting. Those who have not had to face such living conditions believe that you can easily just pick up and move to a better place. And yet, here we have people who are leaving extreme situations, looking for a better life, and these very same people want to turn them away.

For some reason, the expectation is that they can better their lives without changing their situation. In case you were wondering, this is what white privilege looks like: the belief that you can just pack up and move somewhere else to automatically make your life better.

For many, it is simply not that easy. We need to appreciate the lengths to which these migrants are going in order to escape a terrible situation.

Entering America

The boat arrives with the remaining Mousekewitz family as the Statue of Liberty is being constructed. As they go thru the line at Ellis Island, some of the immigrants have their names changed because the mouse at the port of entry can’t pronounce it. This is a reference to the stories of immigrants having their names changed when they came to America, though there is some debate on the veracity of such accounts.

Shorty after the Mousekewitz family arrives, however, the story gives us an expected happy twist. Fievel washes up on Liberty Island in a bottle. The young boy who is believed to be lost to his family is miraculously saved from his terrible death at sea.

Fievel meets Henri the Pigeon, who is working on the Statue of Liberty. Henri is kind and encouraging to Fievel, and so, he begins his quest to find his family.

Unfortunately, one of the first people that Fieval encounters on this trek is Warren T. Rat, a con man who quickly sells Fievel to a sweatshop. In these first two characters that Fievel meets, he gets conflicting information as to what to expect in America. On the one hand, Henri is kind and encouraging. On the other, Warren is conniving and takes advantage of him.

As migrants arrive at our southern border, they are being greeted by a variety of different responses. There are many in America who would gladly welcome them into the country. And there are others who are screaming about building a wall to keep them out.

One of the first problems they face is the fact that we can’t seem to process people fast enough. There is a significant backlog of people at the border who are in a time of limbo, waiting even to be seen in the first place. This has led to some terrible living conditions for people who have come to the border.

It shouldn’t be this difficult. At Ellis Island, on the record-breaking day of April 17, 1907, the 500 employees processed nearly 12,000 immigrants. At the time of this writing, I could not find any solid numbers on how many are currently waiting to be processed, but there are estimates that about 10,000 people are applying every month. This article references the Trump administration’s attempt to slow down the process even more.

As if the unseemly length of time wasn’t bad enough, the current rhetoric painting all potential immigrants with a broad brush as “animals, drug dealers, criminals and rapists,” has done some serious damage. There are many in the American public who believe these things about immigrants, things that are not back up by facts.

Are there some? Potentially. Are they all? Not by any stretch of the imagination. I can’t imagine that a young mother who just traveled hundreds of miles on foot with her two children is looking to rape anybody in America. She just wants her children to be safe.

“But what about the drugs that are coming into America from Mexico?”

According to the Washington Office on Latin America (, a humanitarian rights research and advocacy group, the drugs that are being smuggled into the United States, by and large, are not coming across unguarded swaths of the border. In fact, the overwhelming majority of drugs being smuggled in through Mexico are going right through the ports of entry (see article here). No wall is going to prevent that.

In related news, a drug tunnel was discovered in recent months. No wall would prevent that either. How do we know? Because it was dug under an existing section of border fencing. A wall cannot prevent people from digging under it, nor can it prevent people from flying over it. Sure, it will stop some of the foot traffic, but, frankly, that’s not how the majority is coming in the first place.

In fact, the funds that the President is seeking would be better served at the ports of entry, allowing them to scan the vehicles that are being used to smuggle drugs in the first place.

The Real Humanitarian Crisis

As much as our President has been talking about there being a humanitarian crisis on the southern border, he is right, but not in the way that he thinks. The true humanitarian crisis right now is the living conditions people are facing while waiting to go through the asylum seeking process.

They are living in terrible conditions, and some are even being mistreated. Families are being separated; children are in centers where makeshift rooms are sectioned off by fencing. The fact that a “tender age shelter” is even part of our vocabulary is a scathing indictment against who we are as a people.

You can argue they are rooms all you want (and I have seen that argument being made), but by the same logic then, dogs at the kennel are in “rooms” as well. That is how people, PEOPLE, are being treated by representatives of the government of the United States. It is unacceptable and inhumane.

Building Empathy

When watching An American Tail, it’s hard to not root for the Mousekewitz family. They are a lovely family. Fievel has some spunk to him, always ready to stand up to some cats, even though they could easily eat him. Papa and Mama love their children dearly, and are just delightful. Tanya is a beacon of hope; there’s no reason for her to think that Fievel was still alive, and yet, there she was, sitting on the window sill, unwittingly singing a duet with her brother.

Just a few minutes into the story, we understand the struggle that the family has, and their desire to escape their homeland for the possibility of a better life in America. And sure, they believe something that isn’t true (there are, in fact, cats in America), but that hope drives them to start a new life in a new land. They display extreme bravery — more so than most of us could do were the tables to be turned.

It should be hard for us to come up with a reason to deny the Mousekewitz family entry into the United States, and they are representative of thousands upon thousands of people who are trying to do the very same thing right now.

The excuses that people are coming up with for why it is such a national security threat are simply bogus. Are there some threats? Yes, absolutely. While immigrants to have a lower percentage of violent crimes than the general population, there are certainly some instances, but we don’t throw out the whole bag of grapes if there is one on the vine that has gone bad. And yet, that’s exactly what some people want to do.

I don’t think there is anybody who is arguing that we don’t need immigration reform. Certainly, we need better ways of processing people. We need better ways of getting the line moving so there isn’t a slum on the Mexico side of the border that will just encourage people to find a different way across. And we simply need to be more empathetic to the plight of these people who are traveling hundreds of miles on nothing more than a hope and a dream. While there are cats in America, this doesn’t mean the mice should just stay home and deal with their own cats because it’s not our problem.



Matt Swisher

Just some guy who is looking to make my pocket of the world a better place. Life is a journey; let’s walk together and help each other along the way.