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Filming Against Odds: Undocumented Youth “Come Out” With Their Dreams

A director discusses her first film.

Photo Credit: longislandwins via Flickr


 My first feature-length documentary film, “Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth,” was produced by a scrappy crew, undocumented and documented, old and young, straight and queer, people of many races, ethnicities and religions who came together to make a film and ward off our own despair. There was an urgency to our endeavor. If only others knew these young people as we did, we were certain they would support their movement for self-determination and liberation.

“Papers” is the story of undocumented youth and the challenges they face as they turn 18 without legal status. More than two million undocumented children live in the U.S. today, most with no path to obtain citizenship. These are youth who were born outside the U.S. and yet know only the U.S. as home. The film highlights five undocumented youth who are “American” in every sense but their legal paperwork. Their parents brought them as babies and young children from Guatemala, Jamaica, Mexico and South Korea for all the same reasons families have immigrated to the U.S. throughout American history. We hoped the film would educate, inspire and mobilize viewers to support undocumented youth and efforts to change immigration law, such as the  DREAM Act and Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

We had more experience in community organizing than experience in filmmaking when we started. We made the film against a current of “you can’t.” Many cautioned us against high expectations and warned us that the film might take five to seven years to complete. We didn’t have that time. The young people who made the film with us were in some ways barely keeping their heads above water as the weight of the future pressed down upon them.

The challenge of “you can’t raise the money, especially in this economy” was met with a grassroots campaign in which 1,400 people from 22 states made modest donations because they wanted to see these stories told. Our crew organized house parties and fundraising events, and used the “old” as well as the “new” tools of social activism from phone calls and mailings to Twitter and Facebook. These donors felt like they owned a piece of the film even before it came out.

My partner, Rebecca Shine (who eventually took on the role as producer of “Papers”) and I had been mentoring some young people in North Portland, Oregon, many of them undocumented, some of whom lived at the periphery of gang-life. We trained them with job skills, helped them catch up on school credits, made sure they got glasses when they needed them, listened to their big and small problems.

Fighting Against Despair

We asked of them what most adults would ask: stay in school, stay away from drugs and gangs, work hard. When obstacles arose, those who were undocumented would ask, “Why should I bother? Why does it matter if I finish school? I can’t get a job. I can’t afford to go to college. I don’t have a future.” But with the remarkable resilience of so many who keep going in the face of daunting odds, they kept trying. They graduated. They stayed out of trouble.

At one point, one of the boys’ mothers was arrested in an immigration raid at her workplace, a raid that shook up the entire community. Soon after, driver’s licenses and state IDs were no longer accessible to undocumented people in our state. The tide was changing, locally and nationally. The economy was failing. The ideal circumstances for scapegoating were arising. In 2008, in the midst of the continued and increased hysteria, racism and xenophobia, one young man, Cesar, asked Rebecca, “Why do they hate us so much?”