In the 1970s, my aunt crossed the border from Mexico to the United States hidden in the back of a truck. My grandparents followed, and my father was born in Texas soon after. In 1992, I was born a U.S. citizen thanks to their bravery and sacrifice. Over the past four decades, members of my family have worked hard to gain United States citizenship. Undocumented immigration is an issue I think about every day, and I never forget how blessed I am to have been born in this country thanks to my family and the grace of circumstance. But when I read the news headlines or see debates about immigration rage on social media, I feel afraid for those in similar situations. I feel afraid for my country.
Immigration is a divisive political issue. It’s the subject of endless arguments and countless news stories. But immigration goes beyond politics and headlines. It is a human issue, affecting real people, dismantling real lives. How we deal with it speaks to our humanity, our empathy, our compassion. How we treat our fellow human beings defines who we are.
I don’t claim to be an expert. I’m not a politician, I’m not a doctor, and I don’t work in the system at all. I understand it’s flawed and that we need rules and regulations, but we also have to remember that our country was formed by people who came here from other countries. It’s time to listen to the people whose lives are being directly affected by immigration policies. It’s time to get to know the individuals whose complex stories have been reduced to basic headlines.
In 2017, I was approached about getting involved in a new documentary series called Living Undocumented that would shine a light on eight immigrant families in the U.S. from different countries and backgrounds, all facing possible deportation. I watched footage outlining their deeply personal journeys and I cried. It captured the shame, uncertainty, and fear I saw my own family struggle with. But it also captured the hope, optimism, and patriotism so many undocumented immigrants still hold in their hearts despite the hell they go through.
Last month I met three of the young people documented in the series: A Dreamer named Bar whose family left Israel when she was six months old to escape violence in Tel Aviv, and brothers Pablo and Camilo Dunoyer whose family fled Colombia in 2002 to seek asylum when their family was repeatedly threatened by narco-guerillas — threats their family still receive to this day.
Bar told me she wanted to study interior design. She also told me that she’s lived in fear her whole life. A week before we met she had been violently robbed but was afraid to call the police. She didn’t want them to discover that her parents are undocumented and report them to ICE.
Pablo was accepted to San Diego State University. But he can’t go, because in August his father Roberto Dunoyer left for work and never came home. He was detained by ICE, kept in a cage with other immigrants who slept on the floor with only aluminum blankets for warmth. The lights stayed on at all hours of the day. Pablo said he’d never heard pain like that in his father’s voice, and he’s worried he will carry that pain for the rest of his life. After a horrific eight days, Roberto was deported to Colombia. Since then, the brothers have been in hiding. They can’t go home and they rarely sleep at night. They’re afraid that their time is running out. Camilo told me that his biggest fear isn’t being deported, it’s being forgotten and becoming another faceless statistic.
I’m concerned about the way people are being treated in my country. 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 I hope that getting to know these eight families and their stories will inspire people to be more compassionate, and to learn more about immigration and form their own opinion. I hope that Bar gets to study interior design. I hope that Pablo and Camilo can return home and sleep at night.
When I signed on to executive produce a show about undocumented immigrants, I couldn’t help but anticipate the criticisms I might face. But the truth is, the worst criticism I can imagine is still nothing compared to what undocumented immigrants face every day. Fear shouldn’t stop us from getting involved and educating ourselves on an issue that affects millions of people in our country. Fear didn’t stop my aunt from getting into the back of that truck. And for that, I will always be grateful.
Living Undocumented launches globally on Netflix on Wednesday, Oct. 2
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