Immigration has driven growth and development in the United States since the country was founded, but our relationship with immigrant communities continues to be complicated and at the center of political debate. As a first-generation American (my parents are South African) growing up in Arizona, I could feel how polarizing the immigration debate was, and I could never quite understand the lack of empathy I saw splashed across the news. I believe coming to the United States with no papers is not something anyone would do lightly; often people leave behind families they'll never see again and risk everything to make the journey and start a life here. But while I empathized with the undocumented community, I had never met anyone from it, so my connection never went much further.
By 2012 I had settled in New York City and was working as a film editor. That summer, President Obama announced a new program that would allow certain undocumented youth to apply for renewable two-year work visas and exemption from deportation. I felt energized as I began to read stories of Dreamers, as the participants in the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act came to be known. As Dreamers spoke to the press, I was able to put faces with the personal stories of this group that had once been vague in my mind.
The media recounted stories of youth with impressive bachelor's degrees who could now find work and showed images of rallies across the nation. In July, close to a month after the president's announcement, I opened up New York magazine and saw Angy Rivera standing with a serious demeanor in a shirt that read, "Undocumented, Unafraid, Unapologetic," accompanied by a small article primarily about her online advice column, "Ask Angy," the first and only such column for undocumented youth. Angy's demeanor in both the photo and the interview intrigued me; I was drawn to her and wanted to know more about her.
My first shoot for the project was at an open-mic event at La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem and I was blown away by the power of each performance. The poems, songs and dances shared by everyone were incredibly thought provoking. I was also struck by the composure and raw emotion expressed by such a young group. They shared heartbreaking memories and sadness over the rights they were not able to acquire, as well as frustration with an immigration system that was a roadblock to their futures.
About two months into filming, Angy was working with her attorney, Lauren Burke, to file the paperwork for her application when she revealed that for years as a child she had endured sexual assault at the hands of her mother's boyfriend. With this new information, Lauren knew Angy was eligible for a U-Visa — a type of visa provided to victims of abuse willing to report the crime to the police.
As Angy talked to me about the assault, I knew the focus of the film would shift from "Ask Angy" and a chorus of stories and experiences to a more personal tale of one woman's journey — albeit one that represents so many others. Angy put her trust in me, and I think she knew how important it was to tell this part of her story in order to help other victims speak out and find community and counseling.
This journey with Angy, her mother, Maria, her siblings and her entire community has been extremely eye-opening to me, and I've taken away lessons for my own life from every interaction. I know that Angy's story and the stories of many others can only help our national conversation.
With 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, there is a renewed focus on how to recognize and systematize this substantial and extremely integrated group operating outside of established government agencies. The disconnect between rhetoric and action has created a sphere of uncertainty for the undocumented community. Through Angy and her community, we have witnessed firsthand the all-too-real consequences of being undocumented in the United States. Depression, sexual assault and suicide are just a few of the issues plaguing undocumented youth. Our hope with this film is to make the political personal and create a healthy dialogue on how to support our neighbors and friends in the undocumented community.
— Mikaela Shwer, Director/Editor