Ever since the White House announced it was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, we’ve see how widely-held misconceptions have come to dominate the discussion regarding DREAMers and their future in the U.S. The Obama-era program was designed as an initiative that would allow undocumented immigrants who’d come into this country when they were much too young to be held accountable for such an action. It has since become a rallying point for those who, knowingly or not, spout off misleading claims about how DACA recipients siphon off government funds or steal jobs from “real” Americans.
What gets lost in the process, especially when we boil the issue down to statistics (close to 800,000 people will be affected by the government’s decision), are the specific stories of DACA recipients who, as Gael García Bernal recently put it, are often model citizens. If the American people are to stand up for DREAMers, we need to learn not just about their stories and their dreams (like that of becoming a film critic in the country they call home) but get informed as to how best to leverage direct action, civil disobedience, and grassroots organizing to affect change.
With that in mind, we’ve come up with a handy list of films that collectively help give context to what it means to live in the U.S. without papers. Think of these 15 documentaries as projects that shed light on these stories and serve as much needed educational tools that cut through any partisan ideas about undocumented immigrants in the U.S. You can learn about the perilous journeys these migrants make, get educated about how gender and sexuality crucially complicate their lives, and how everything from one’s education to working conditions become tied up in the fear and shame that often accompanies being undocumented. They are all available to stream on different platforms.
Which Way Home
Stream Which Way Home on Vudu.
Each year, thousands of Latin American immigrants travel hundreds of miles to the United States, with many making their way on the tops of freight trains. Roughly 5% of those traveling alone are children. This Academy Award-nominated film follows several unaccompanied children as they journey through Mexico en route to the U.S. on a freight train called “la bestia.” Director Rebecca Cammisa tracks the stories of children like Olga and Freddy, 9-year-old Hondurans who are desperately trying to reach their families in Minnesota; and Jose, a 10-year-old Salvadoran boy who has been abandoned by smugglers and ends up alone in a Mexican detention center, and focuses on Kevin, a canny, street-wise 14-year-old Honduran, whose mother hopes he will reach New York City and send money back to his family. These are stories of hope and courage, disappointment and sorrow. As Cammisa follows these young kids, she shows just how far Central and Latin Americans will go to be reunited with their family in hopes of a better life across the border.
Stream Food Chains on Hulu.
Fast food in America has come under attack, and rightly so. But that makes it easy to forget that there’s a dark side to even the healthier options. In his documentary Food Chains, Sanjay Rawal takes up the plight of migrant farmworkers by focusing on their fight in Immokalee, Florida. Forrest Whitaker narrates as the workers form the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, to push back against supermarket giants who essentially pressure farm owners to pay poverty wages. Eva Longoria executive-produced this film that’s a great follow-up to Harvest of Shame.
The Hand That Feeds
Stream The Hand That Feeds YouTube, Amazon, and Google Play.
The Hand That Feeds is a thought-provoking and relevant film that ought to make viewers think twice about how they spend their money. Amid the Macs, crusty bagels, and caramel lattes on Manhattan’s Upper East Side café scene, a struggle is taking place. Immigrant workers organize themselves to fight a culture of exploitation and mistreatment that gives them zero rights and only slightly more in wages. Due to their undocumented status, they have come up against a brick wall in previous attempts to improve conditions, but this time, their determination builds into a popular movement that draws on the wider community, the courts, and Occupy Wall Street protestors.
Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America
Stream Forbidden on Kanopy.
When Moises Serrano was a baby, his parents risked everything to flee Mexico in search of the American Dream. Growing up in the rural South as an undocumented gay man, forbidden to live and love in the country he calls home, Serrano sees only one option — to fight for justice and equality. Driven by a deep love for his family, who have come to accept being treated as invisible, Moises seeks to change the world.
Stream Immigration Battle on PBS.org.
Directors Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson build upon an extensive body of work documenting both sides of the struggle for immigration reform in this country with this profile of Illinois congressman Luis Gutiérrez. Born in Chicago to Puerto Rican parents, Gutiérrez has been one of the U.S. House of Representative’s most vocal voices for comprehensive immigration reform since he took office in 1993. Immigration Battle follows his astute political maneuvering during the attempted passage of a bi-partisan immigration reform bill that was sadly but unsurprisingly shot down by opportunist politicians feeding off of anti-immigrant sentiment.
Stream Sin País on Vimeo.
Nearly twenty years ago, Sam and Elida Mejia escaped Guatemala during a violent civil war and brought their one-year-old son to California. They worked hard, raised a family, and lived the American dream. Two years ago, immigration agents stormed the Mejias’ house and they have been fighting to stay in the U.S. ever since. Sin País begins two weeks before Sam and Elida are deported and the family is ripped apart. With intimate access and striking imagery, this short film explores the complexities of the Mejias’ new reality of a separated family – parents without their children, and children without their parents.
New American Girls
Stream New American Girls on PBS.org.
What is it like to grow up in a country that fails to recognize your status or citizenship, while classing you as “illegal,” in spite of your integration at all levels of culture and society? In this documentary series, three teenage girls (of Mexican, Peruvian, and Indian descent) brought to the U.S. by their parents at a young age describe their experiences as undocumented residents who feel American. Having excelled at school, the girls are subsequently unable to go to college, get jobs, or register in a system that impedes their sense of identity and damages their prospects. The situation has led to a national campaign for reform and state recognition of young people’s rights.
Who is Dayani Cristal?
Produced and starring Gael García Bernal in what he’s called a “serious Borat,” this documentary begins in the Arizona desert where a body of a migrant is found with only one clue as to his identity: a tattoo that reads “Dayani Cristal.” In an attempt to retrace his path and discover his story, director Marc Silver and García Bernal embed themselves among migrant travelers on their own mission to cross the border, providing rare insight into the human stories which are so often ignored in the immigration debate. Giving audiences a front row seat to the ruthless journey migrants take in order to get into the U.S., Who is Dayani Cristal? offers a voice to those who have remained voiceless for too long.
Nearly 11 million people live in the US without the benefit of social and political rights, and the majority are Mexicans. Undocumented Mexican immigrants have become the public face of the anti-immigrant backlash now sweeping our country – and yet much of the national debate about their lives, their motivations, and their role in maintaining crucial sectors of the US economy – is deeply flawed.
Roadtrip Nation: Beyond the Dream
Stream Roadtrip Nation: Beyond the Dream on PBS.org.
Everyone seems to have a voice in the immigration debate—except immigrants, themselves. Hear immigrants tell their stories in their own words, on their own terms—and for the first time. Explore the immigrant experience through the eyes of Alexis, Rachel, and Pratishtha: three immigrants who were brought to this country at a young age, and have been temporarily granted partial—but not full—protection against deportation. Determined to clarify their futures despite their murky status, they set out to talk to fellow immigrants who’ve found success, learning that lines on a map don’t make you who you are. It’s not where you’re born, but where you go in life, that defines you.
Don’t Tell Anyone
Since the age of 4, Angy Rivera has lived in the United States with a secret that threatens to upend her life: She is undocumented. Now 24 and facing an uncertain future, Rivera becomes an activist for undocumented youth with a popular advice blog and a YouTube channel boasting more than 27,000 views. She steps out of the shadows a second time to share her story of sexual abuse, an experience all too common among undocumented women. Don’t Tell Anyone (No Le Digas a Nadie) follows Rivera’s remarkable journey from poverty in rural Colombia to the front page of The New York Times.
Filipino Jose Antonio Vargas had achieved, in his own words, the American Dream. He had made a life for himself in the United States working as a journalist. But he lived with a secret: he was undocumented. Knowing that silence and shame are crucial to keeping this disenfranchised community from speaking out, he set out to make Documented. Borrowing from the journalistic segments you’re likely to see on CNN (which distributed the film), the documentary tells not only his own story but tries to change the narrative about how we think about undocumented Americans. “We mow your lawn, we work at your houses,” he says at one point in the film, “maybe we’re your doctors, maybe your nurses. We’re not who you think we are.”
Una Vida, Dos Países
This multilingual film (it’s in Spanish, English, and Zapotec) was created by and for educators. With the rising numbers of American-born Mexicans who have returned to Mexico, new challenges for the kids who have only known life in the U.S. have arisen. Una Vida, Dos Países presents the stories of these transborder youth, highlighting their experiences living between two countries, cultures, languages and education systems, and exploring their parents’ decisions to return to their home country after living undocumented in the US.
The Other Side of Immigration
Based on over 700 interviews in Mexican towns where about half the population has left to work in the United States, The Other Side of Immigration asks why so many Mexicans come to the U.S. and what happens to the families and communities they leave behind. Through an approach that is both subtle and thought-provoking, filmmaker Roy Germano provides a perspective on undocumented immigration rarely witnessed by American eyes, challenging audiences to imagine more creative and effective solutions to the problem.
The inspirational, true-life tale of a rag-tag team of underprivileged Arizona high school kids who beat the odds and 10 years later inspired a Hollywood tribute starring George Lopez and Marisa Tomei. Mary Mazzio’s documentary relives the glorious day when the all-Latino team’s improvised, low-budget underwater robot swept a fancy national robotics competition where schools like MIT also happened to be competing. Featuring interviews with the team and their coaches, Underwater Dreams also explores the positive legacy these students – some of whom were undocumented immigrants – left on their peers.