Living Undocumented is the latest contribution to the growing body of video journalism capturing the human misery being wrought by the United States’ aggressive new immigration policies. The families who agreed to tell their stories in this six-part docuseries are a microcosm of everything that's wrong with our country’s stance toward the 11 million illegal immigrants within our borders.
Netflix will recommend Living Undocumented to millions of viewers, and Selena Gomez is an executive producer, so we can expect hashtags and media coverage galore for this program in the coming days and weeks.
And then what?
Even if you see only one episode (I offer my pick for the one to watch below), you’ll come away understanding how dramatically the country’s immigration policies have changed under this president. You’ll feel in your gut the human toll that change has exacted.
So ... then what?
See, this is the problem with the endless buffet of high-quality Netflix shows on hot-button social issues. You can watch them till the cows come home — they’re very compelling. You can learn a lot from them. They’ll pull strong feelings out of you.
But if nothing ever changes, then what is the point of all this understanding and emoting? After 9/11, Bill Maher declared that putting a flag sticker on your car was literally the least you can do. Is that what hashtagging the latest Netflix doc has become — the new flag sticker?
It’s a question obviously on the minds of Aaron Saidman and Anna Chai, the co-directors of Living Undocumented. In the opening minute of Episode 1, they put it to the viewer.
As we watch images of some of the undocumented immigrants whose stories will be told in the series — see them hugging, crying, being detained — we hear Awa Harouna, the daughter of a detained Mauritanian national, predict how we’ll react to Living Undocumented.
“You can watch a documentary (and) you can say, ‘Well, this is too bad’,” says Harouna. “But at the end of the day, it’s just something that you’re watching on TV. And you can turn that off and go about your life.”
She’s right. And ironically, we’re more likely to disregard a program like Living Undocumented because it’s powerful — too powerful, so powerful it overloads our emotional circuits, resulting in compassion fatigue and apathy. Even more ironic is that Netflix, which by now knows us better than our mothers, thought we would be ideal viewers for Living Undocumented.
For instance, in the case of Alejandra Juarez we see a top-to-bottom travesty of justice. In 1998 she fled Mexico after a credible threat of being killed. She found work, paid taxes, married a U.S. citizen serving in the military ... and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) came after her anyway. Her congressman introduced a bill to stop her deportation. He failed.
In another case that made national headlines, an ICE officer was caught on video shoving Kansas City immigration lawyer Andrea Martinez as she was intervening on behalf of Luis Diaz-Inestroza, a refugee from the gang violence that is rampant in his native Honduras. Martinez stumbled and fell, breaking her foot.
Watching these scenes, it’s natural to feel a sense of growing fury as well as futility. If viral video and an act of Congress can’t stop the president’s border goons, you wonder, who can?
Lest I misrepresent, Living Undocumented is not a brief for the #AbolishICE crowd. ICE is just the police, enforcing laws that are either written by Congress or improvised by presidents. And those laws go back a lot further than this administration. In almost every episode we see old tape of Bill Clinton talking tough about immigration. He’s the one who started the trend of putting the squeeze on the undocumented. Since then, every president has strengthened these rules and widened their enforcement while the legislative branch bickered on the sidelines. The current president and his former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, simply took existing immigration law to extremes in the hopes that, as Sessions dryly put it, “people will get the message.”
The people we meet in Living Undocumented were clearly chosen for their love of America, their sympathetic reasons for wanting to stay, and their ability to tell their story clearly (in Awa Harouna’s case, lyrically). An on-screen graphic informs us that “eight undocumented families agreed to be filmed,” but that makes the process sound more stealthy than it was. Four of the cases were already in the news in 2018. (One was also featured in a documentary on YouTube Premium called The Deported.) A fifth case features a couple that wasn’t at risk because they’ve self-deported to Canada.
I recommend all six episodes of Living Undocumented but if time is short, or you fatigue quickly, then start at Episode 4 and watch as much as you can — to the end of the series if possible.
And then what? Then you, and the rest of us who are moved by the stories told here, try and write the end to this sorry chapter in our history.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.