Over the last six months, scripted TV has had its share of heartbreaking stories about undocumented immigrants. We’ve watched a handcuffed Maritza walked to a plane heading back to Colombia on Orange Is the New Black. We’ve seen Mateo on Superstore picked up by immigration agents and sent to a detention center. On Jane the Virgin, Abuela married a man so he could obtain legal status to visit his ill mother in his native country.
But as thought-provoking as those fictional portrayals are, none could be as revealing as the six-part documentary series Living Undocumented, which debuts on Netflix today. By following eight families who live in six different states, hail from six different countries, and have varied problems with their immigration status, Living Undocumented goes inside the experience of life as an undocumented immigrant in the United States with unprecedented intimacy.
Other documentaries have certainly tackled aspects of this complex issue from a personal standpoint. Epix’s America Divided featured actor America Ferrera exploring the challenges facing Central American refugees on the Texas border. The Infiltrators, the winner of this year’s NEXT Audience Award at Sundance, blended documentary filmmaking with scripted narrative to tell the story of two undocumented Florida activists who recorded life inside detention centers. But in Living Undocumented, viewers spend time inside the homes, businesses, and workplaces of families being torn apart by laws and policies that don’t always make sense — families whose daily lives center around possible deportation.
In the same episode where viewers see a loving father playing with his toddler on a swing after his girlfriend is deported, for instance, we experience the terrifying suspense of a check-in appointment with Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials, where another father doesn’t know if he’ll be instantly detained and deported, or allowed to stay with his citizen wife and child. In another episode, the wife of a former Marine has no choice but to self-deport to Mexico with her 9-year-old U.S. citizen daughter, leaving her husband and older daughter in Florida. Another Mexican immigrant opts to self-deport to Toronto with his citizen husband after losing his chance at legal status because, at age 14, he flew to the U.S. to see his mother while she was getting cancer treatment.
Executive produced by Selena Gomez, the series is co-directed and co–executive produced by Aaron Saidman, the Emmy-winning producer of Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath, and Anna Chai, the Emmy-winning producer and director of The Mind of a Chef and The Layover With Anthony Bourdain. Saidman and his partner became interested in the topic when executive producer Sean O’Grady showed them footage of an up-and-coming Nigerian chef who had lived in the U.S. for 15 years and was detained by ICE on his way to a culinary event. “One of the things that dawned on us in all the noisy debates about the immigration issue was that we were not getting the personal stories that are at the heart of this issue,” Saidman said. “It was important to us to craft a series where we could tell those stories while illuminating what we think is a complex immigration system.”
Production took place from April 2018 to January 2019, as the political rhetoric surrounding “migrant caravans” intensified, and family separation became a hot-button issue around the country. To find the families, producers reached out to hundreds of potential candidates through immigration attorneys, advocacy organizations, local news, and social media. As expected, many immigrants declined out of fear of jeopardizing their legal situations. In the end, producers landed on two families from Texas, two from California, and one each from South Carolina, Maryland, Florida, and Wisconsin. The families hail from Honduras, Mexico, Colombia, Laos, Israel, and Mauritania.
“It could have been really easy to make the show about Mexico or Central America, but we purposely tried to find stories in other parts of the world to flesh out the whole immigration story because it’s not just an alien border story,” said Chai, whose parents migrated from South Korea and had a routine path to citizenship. “Most people don’t realize that they know someone who’s undocumented,” she added. “It took a while to find people whose stories were so different and who had different stakes and were at different points in the immigration process.”
None of the families were compensated for their participation, which included being followed for months through extraordinary and often frightening events in their lives. They were allowed to identify themselves in whatever way made them most comfortable. Some gave their full names, others only gave partial identities, and one Honduran couple chose to remain completely anonymous. The producers initially wanted to include ICE’s point of view as well, but the agency’s conditions for participation made them worry it would harm the families, so they chose to move forward with the project without it.
“Each of the families that agreed to participate did so of their own volition and their bravery. Taking that risk should not be underestimated,” Saidman said, adding that producers worked with the families’ lawyers to ensure they didn’t “inadvertently affect” their legal cases. “We take our duteous care of these participants very seriously and so it was important to us that it was completely their decision to participate.”
One harrowing journey follows Luis and Kenia, a young couple who met in Honduras and began dating in Texas, overcoming perilous odds as they strove to keep their family whole. During a traffic stop in May 2018, ICE detained Kenia, who was five months pregnant at the time, because there was a removal order on her file. Six weeks later, when Luis decided to bring her 3-year-old son, Noah, to Kenia for them to be deported together, ICE told his lawyers that Luis would not be detained during the good-bye visit. That proved to be a lie: The mother and son were deported to Honduras, while Luis, who had traveled for a month to cross the border in 2012, was detained for two months.
But that was not the most nerve-racking part of their story. Thirty-six weeks into her pregnancy, Kenia hired coyotes to help her and Noah leave Honduras again because her abusive ex-husband, a police officer, had been stalking her and she feared for her life. The journey involved riding a network of freight trains known as “the Death Train” or “the Beast” to traverse Mexico. The minutes in the documentary that Luis and his 3-year-old son, Gael, wait for Kenia and Noah to arrive by bus are filled with angst and anxiety.
“When Luis and Kenia got reunited at the bus station, we stopped filming and all of us in the crew just sobbed for 15 minutes,” Chai said. “The whole time, you’re expecting something bad to happen, so when something good happens, you really celebrate, even if it’s just for a few minutes. A project like this is never going to leave you. You can’t have people bare their secrets, and expect that doesn’t leave a mark on you.”
Those marks weren’t just emotional for immigration lawyer Andrea Martinez. In a particularly shocking scene outside of an ICE office, filmed as Luis arrived to give Noah to his mother, Martinez was shoved to the ground by an ICE agent as she and fellow lawyer, Megan Galicia, attempted to enter the office. When viewers next see Martinez onscreen, she’s lying on a stretcher with a fractured left foot and lacerations on her ankle and knee.
“I was inches away from them and it was so shocking and confusing,” Chai said. “You hear these stories when someone is deported in the middle of the night and it just sounds fantastical until you’re faced with it and then it’s unreal. I do hope it makes people think [about] if there are things we can do to make this process better, smoother, and safer.”
While participating in the documentary doesn’t benefit him or his family directly, Luis told Vulture in an email that it was important to share his story so that society can have a better understanding of what immigrants go through as they apply for asylum or seek other legal remedies for their situations.
“We are happy with the idea that the country would understand what we go through as immigrants,” he wrote. “The truth is that everything we lived through was incredibly harrowing, and in that pain that I felt I was motivated to take part in this project because I didn’t want anyone else to live through the same horrible experiences that I survived with my family. For us, the only thing left to do is move past all of that and continue fighting for our happiness.”
Although filming ceased at the beginning of the year, producers still keep in touch with the families or their lawyers and monitor their cases. They recently received a bit of good news: Amadou Sow, who arrived from Mauritania in 1991 and lives in Ohio, is getting another opportunity to litigate his asylum in immigration court after spending nearly a year in detention for refusing to get on a plane to be deported. “It’s still a really long road, but this was totally unexpected and a really big deal for him — a little kernel of hope,” Chai said.
But another update from a San Diego family highlights the gravity of the issues at hand. After 17 years of living in the U.S., the Dunoyer family was told they would likely be deported under policy changes made by the Trump administration. Originally from Colombia, Roberto Dunoyer, his wife, and two young sons sought asylum in 2002 after the National Liberation Army, a guerrilla group, threatened their lives. Although the group continues to intimidate them — last year the group warned they would “crush and dismember one-by-one the members of your family” — ICE detained Roberto Dunoyer a few weeks ago and deported him to Colombia. His wife and two sons are living separately for their safety.
“That in and of itself was a sad and emotional experience,” Saidman said. “We conclude every story with title cards, and we had to go back in and change the episode to reflect this news. It reminded us of how precarious everyone’s status really is and how subject to change and how fraught it is. These are living, breathing human beings whose situations are incredibly fluid. Even though we’re making a TV show, the stakes couldn’t be higher for the participants.”