Laith Nakli and Julio Torres in 'Problemista.'
Courtesy of A24

If there’s one thing you should know about me it’s that I’m utterly unsuited for bureaucracy. I don’t know my passwords to anything. I have thousands and thousands of unread emails. I don’t open mail because I assume it’ll be bad news. I’ve never had a credit card. But it’s also something that, as a filmmaker and a writer, deeply fascinates me—how sterile, faceless, and universally isolating it all can be.

When I set out to make my movie Problemista, among the biggest things I wanted to explore was the relentless maze of American bureaucracy, particularly in the U.S. immigration system. It’s a terrain I’ve had to traverse as a young college student from El Salvador in the early 2010s and one that the protagonist of the movie, Alejandro, has to navigate, too. But I soon came to realize that I wasn’t the only one on set who had been dealing with this: Laith Nakli—the actor who plays Alejandro’s immigration lawyer—has been weaving through the twists and turns of this system for most of his adult life. A cosmic irony I couldn’t unsee.

Read More: Tens of Thousands of Afghans Who Fled The Taliban Are Now Marooned in America’s Broken Immigration Bureaucracy

Laith is British-Syrian and moved to the U.S. in the ‘90s. In his 20s, he got into bodybuilding and was caught moving a package of steroids—a favor that he was doing for his then coach. The offense culminated in him getting arrested and having to do 200 hours of community service. Laith ended up doing 400 and afterwards, he was on probation. For most people that would be the end of the story: a pretty low offense and a pretty light sentence. Done and done after “paying his debt to society,” as they say. But for someone in Laith’s position who’s not from the U.S., this resulted in him having to reapply for a visa every year to continue to stay here.

Because of this, Laith is unable to leave the States. He hasn’t been able to visit his family, and what’s more, his blossoming career as an actor has a ceiling. Even though great opportunities come about, he has had to turn down jobs because they shoot abroad. And if you’re working in the entertainment industry in the U.S., you know that more and more things are shooting all over the world.

I sympathize with this frustration a lot—the idea that, as an immigrant in the U.S., you have an opportunity to go out and create something for yourself. But that “something” always has an asterisk. Much like Laith and Alejandro, I have also had moments in my life where there were limitations on what I could and couldn’t do because of these invisible bureaucratic guardrails within the U.S. immigration system.

What many people don’t realize is that navigating this system—and being a “successful immigrant”— is a second job. You have to get relentlessly creative to fill the gaps in a broken system. The less money you have, the harder it is. The less of a safety net you have, the harder it is. If someone is undocumented, then the corridors of that maze get narrower and narrower. This complicated puzzle is equally not in your control and one that you keep having to figure out. It’s a game where the rules don’t add up, no one can rationally defend, and yet never changes.

For different immigrants that looks different. The inability to secure employment is a very common challenge. In Laith’s case, it’s his restricted mobility. And for me, it was the frustration that came from seeing my peers live day by day and have the grace period to figure themselves out. For many years during college and after graduation, I felt like I was against the clock and I had to figure out things very quickly or else I wouldn’t be able to stay in the U.S. To top it all off, there was the added difficulty that my dream life wasn’t to secure a stable job. I wanted to live a creative life.

In some ways, this is the same for Alejandro: this is a kid who has been protected his whole life in El Salvador, and now he wants to prove himself by becoming a toy designer in the U.S. (The irony being that he wants to prove himself by doing something so difficult to achieve his equally difficult dream). When he meets the famous, domineering art critic Elizabeth (played by Tilda Swinton) and begins to work for her so that he might get a visa, he sees a challenge—the kind that he hasn’t had before. He doesn’t just want the piece of paper; this is a very specific person who wants to reach his goals in a very specific way.

Julio Torres in 'Problemista.' (Jon Pack)
Julio Torres in 'Problemista.'
Jon Pack

Problemista is not meant to be a global thesis on immigration. It is not a documentary about policy. Rather, the movie came from a very specific point of view about the choices we make and what motivates us. The movie is, at least on the surface, about a young person who faces all the caveats, challenges, and rules the immigration system throws at him. Through it all, he learns how to bend over backwards and limbo dance under the lasers into the life that he wants to live.

I hope it illuminates an experience that feels familiar to people—the feeling of being trapped in a system that you have no say in. Because it’s not exclusive to the experience of the immigrant. Think about those who don’t have health insurance and have to navigate the medical system. Or those who are in debt. These are all impossible systems, with rules no one seems to agree on.

Equally important, this movie is also about looking at what happens when someone gets help. It’s looking at what happens when we have a little bit of empathy for each other and question why it is that people have to work so hard to achieve their dreams. Instead of cheering people up a ladder, it’s worth asking ourselves why there is a ladder in the first place.

It’s a question that I’m sure sends shivers down the spine of anyone who celebrates the idea that one must work hard and not complain. But what if working hard isn’t enough for so many? Laith achieved the near impossible—he booked highly coveted acting jobs. And yet he can’t move about the world freely because he made a mistake in the ’90s, one for which he’s already paid.

Laith’s immigration journey has one final stop—he can try to get the president to grant him clemency. He now has an application pending with the U.S. Pardon Attorney. But there’s no timeline for when or even if the pardon attorney will decide to take a look at it and pass it along to the president’s desk.

There’s a moment in our film where the protagonist learns he can never hope for answers from an entity, but that instead, he must find a human being within the bureaucracy, appeal to their moral compass, and make a case person to person.

So, in that spirit: Hi, White House! Want to pass Laith’s case along to the president? We’ve tried all the other options. So, now, I’m afraid I’ll need to talk to your supervisor! —As told to Rachel Sonis

Torres is an actor, comedian, director, and a 2023 TIME100 Next honoree. ‘Problemista’ is his feature filmmaking debut

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