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‘Living Undocumented’ is Difficult to Watch and That is Precisely Why Everyone Should

Dir. Aaron Saidman and Anna Chai—5 STARS

'Living Undocumented' still

Lips tremble, voices quake, and tears escape. Shaking hands clasp rosaries and children clutch toys. Everything is precious, yet it could all be gone in a moment, and millions of adults and children alike live with that uncertainty every day.

The Netflix documentary series “Living Undocumented” profiles the lives of eight families living in the United States without citizenship. Some live entirely under ICE’s radar, in constant fear that a routine police stop will lead to their discovery and cause their carefully constructed world to crumble. Others are forced to endure regular check-ins, terrified each time they enter an ICE facility that they may never leave. Some of those profiled entered the United States illegally, while others came on a valid visa but never left. Although their stories vary widely, all seek a better life for themselves and their families within this nation’s borders.

Luis Diaz-Inestroza came to America from Honduras in 2012. His pregnant partner Kenia Bautista-Mayorga is about to be deported and Luis is bringing her three-year-old son, Noah, to the detention center, where he will be sent back to Honduras with his mother. Luis puts himself at risk simply by delivering Noah, but a careful plan is arranged. Their lawyer, the indomitable Andrea Martinez, and another attorney will drive Luis and Noah to an established meeting point in the parking lot where another van will deliver Kenia, allowing them a final embrace. By the time the sickening realization sets in that Kenia will not be allowed to leave the building, a gruff agent has grabbed Luis and dragged him and the sleepy toddler inside. As the lawyers attempt to follow, one is shoved to the ground, fracturing a foot and bloodying a knee. The viewer is left to wonder, as Martinez herself does, if that is how they treat attorneys with an audience of protestors and a horde of video cameras, “imagine how ICE is treating immigrants behind closed doors when nobody is watching.”

Ron’s story is markedly different. His last name is not used as he is not in ICE’s system, and he desperately needs to keep it that way. He came to America 17 years ago with his wife and infant daughter, Bar. They fled Israel when their home became a war zone. Unable to return, Ron describes watching his father’s funeral on a DVD sent to him by a cousin. Bar, now 17, relies on her DACA status to survive. She is grateful to be here and yet her voice breaks as she explains, “This is my life. And I always have to do everything scared.” Ron is America’s dream immigrant. Despite his undocumented status, he is the co-owner of a business that makes $2 million a year and dutifully pays his taxes. Rather than “stealing jobs,” Ron has created them for dozens of people in his community.

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Not all those profiled in “Living Undocumented” can be easily painted as “model citizens.” Vinny fled Laos in the 1980’s and was given permanent resident status, something most immigrants today can only dream of. But Vinny lost his permanent residency due to time spent in prison for dealing methamphetamine. While Vinny found religion, rehabilitated himself, and is now married with a young daughter, his story is difficult to watch after some of the others. While his story is deeply inspiring, it is hard to argue for a second chance when many never receive a first: an insoluble dilemma.

All of the families featured together create a remarkably nuanced, comprehensive presentation of who undocumented immigrants or, as many on the far-right refer to them, “illegal aliens,” truly are. Cinematically, by switching between each family, seeing fragments of each story at a time, viewers get some semblance of how much of the immigration process is a waiting game and how these stories intersect. One is able to compare the different families and the struggles each faces. New families appear and old ones slowly aren’t followed anymore, as conclusive answers and neat endings are often impossible when discussing immigration. Safety for some, like Vinny, simply means getting through another check point, buying just another year. They have to be satisfied with these brief increments because permanency is not an option, a difficult and unstable way to live.

Throughout “Living Undocumented,” heroes emerge. Thousands of immigration attorneys dedicate endless time and energy to wage against what is often a frustrating, futile, and painful battle. They must often put themselves at great personal risk in order to fight passionately for their clients, motivated only by the desire to help people who desperately need it. In a way, the filmmakers, production team, and others involved in creating this docuseries are doing a similar job. They are taking people who have been silenced by an oppressive, bureaucratic system and handing them a megaphone. The documentary format is well-used, with legal experts and lawyers appearing only to describe changes in immigration policy between presidential administrations and other complex details. For the most part, the families tell their own stories. The audience is able to form a personal connection with those on screen.

Interestingly, the production and the team behind this series has been talked about more widely than for typical shows. This is because the show’s Executive Producer is actress and singer, Selena Gomez. While this may have concerned some, given Gomez’s history producing “13 Reasons Why,” a series frequently criticized for its questionable portrayal of mental health issues and suicide, Gomez is taking a risk herself in championing this cause. She wrote in Time Magazine, “As a Mexican-American woman, I feel a responsibility to use my platform to be a voice for people who are too afraid to speak,” and a recently uploaded YouTube video shows the star in a sort of round table discussion with three children whose stories are included in the series: Bar, Camilo, and Pablo. She concludes the video with the message, “Immigration is a complex issue, and while I don’t have answers on how to fix it, it needs to be talked about. Bar, Camilo and Pablo were brought to the United States when they were children. They grew up here, built their lives here, and they know no other home than this country. No one should be subjected to the condition that their families have had to endure.”

It is commendable that she is lending her considerable platform — she currently has just shy of 160 million Instagram followers, for example — to illuminate such a crucial issue. Furthermore, it is unspeakably brave of the families to allow their names and faces to be broadcast globally to Netflix’s millions of subscribers. They have taken an unfathomable risk to tell their stories, and with that, the stories of so many others who must remain in the shadows.

U.S. immigration policy has been incessantly debated on television, online, in offices and around dinner tables across the country. This subject is incredibly divisive and the debates often become heated. However, during these arguments, immigration reform is often discussed in the abstract, relying on general statistics, vague facts, and hypothetical examples of sympathetic stories and dangerous repercussions alike. What makes “Living Undocumented” uniquely compelling is that it is fundamentally human. And it is this humanity that makes it so gut-wrenching: Luis’s courageous decision to brave an ICE facility to say goodbye to Kenia; Bar working harder than any young person should have to yet living in constant fear. Their stories of strength and triumph should be celebrated. They embody passion and determination and grit. And you know what? They are American.

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