What Selena Gomez’s ‘Living Undocumented’ Already Gets Wrong

Selena Gomez. Photo by Kathy Hutchins / Photostock

By Jose Servin, Guest Columnist

Pop singer Selena Gomez is the executive producer behind Living Undocumented, a Netflix documentary series set to premiere next week. It follows the stories of eight families to demonstrate how “their journeys illuminate and humanize the complex U.S. immigration system.” Though the intention of this show seems noble, the producers, including Gomez, make too many troublesome assumptions that deprive this docuseries of its potential impact on the public.

Worst among these assumptions is the idea that the undocumented community needs a voice. We already have a voice, and it’s a loud one. Look no further than the “Abolish ICE” campaign, which not only went viral last year, but is slowly becoming a reality in California as organizing efforts at the legislative level have pushed Assembly Bill 32, a law that will make private prisons illegal in the state, to the governor’s desk. Once signed, AB 32 will deal a huge blow to Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s business in the state, as well as to morally bankrupt corporations like the GEO Group that make millions off of the incarceration of people of color.

Gomez could’ve learned a lot from the way that other stars have successfully and positively worked with the undocumented community. Many cast members of another Netflix series, Orange Is the New Black, used their expansive reach on social media to support AB 32. Diane Guerrero, one of the lead actresses from the series who has a family history dealing with irrational immigration laws, led the social media charge. She consulted with undocumented organizers, became informed about the efforts, and made a huge, intentional contribution to them.

By listening to the voices of undocumented people, rather than speaking for them, the cast members of OITNB avoided the pitfalls that Gomez and her camp are currently facing. Had the Living Undocumented team consulted with any undocumented groups, even the most respectability-adhering ones, they would’ve realized that the “good immigrant” versus “bad immigrant” narrative has long been declared null.

“My mom is not a criminal, she’s a military wife” is one of the leading lines from the series’ trailer. It does much to invoke emotion, but does just as much damage to evolving efforts that truly explain what undocumented means to the public. The reality is that within the purview of xenophobic immigrant laws, we are all “criminals.” To say that some of us are criminals and some are not is to carve out black-and-white subgroups in a world full of gray.

Additionally, organizing efforts such as the Abolish ICE campaign have unleashed a wave of undocumented creativity across the country. The YouTube series UndocuTales by undocumented director Armando Ibañez focuses on the intersection of being undocumented and queer in the U.S. CultureStrike is another group pushing groundbreaking representations of the undocumented community, work that is always in alignment with undocumented creators.

Then there’s Set Rongkilyo, a talented filmmaker who was in contact with Netflix earlier last year. When approached to help find immigrant stories that might define the struggles of being undocumented, Rongkilyo inquired as to whether undocumented filmmakers and creators could be hired and referenced in this work. In a short email response, Set was told that hiring an undocumented filmmaker was not an option, with no explanation why.

If Netflix team behind this project wouldn’t even consider supporting undocumented creatives, it’s difficult to believe that they have the best interests of the families they are highlighting in mind. At the end of the day, this series is an investment for Netflix and a source of wealth for those involved. It’s immoral for them to profit from the pains of the families highlighted without taking an informed approach by consulting experts such as the filmmakers mentioned above, or the organizers who learned from the mistakes that this team is now making.

To offset the damage that this ill-informed documentary might do to the giant strides the undocumented migrant community has made, I encourage everyone to share the art of the amazing filmmakers referenced above and uplift their work. It’s their voices that lead and inform our movement, not that of multi-millionaires out of touch with the reality behind our efforts.

11 Replies to “What Selena Gomez’s ‘Living Undocumented’ Already Gets Wrong”

  1. I am an immigrant. We waited for years in our camps to enter the USA legally. People you refer to as undocumented are people who dishonestly violated our immigration laws. They are not any type of immigrant but migrants. Legally they are foreign nationals who violated and keep violating US laws that are inconvenient

  2. You really got it wrong. Certainly, our country is about the expression of one’s opinion, but that doesn’t mean the opinion you express is correct. It should be respected, yes. But, your statement that “Living Undocumented” is an ill-informed documentary is truly short sided and indicative of someone who has not really viewed the full documentary. It’s real people sharing their stories. Its poignantly told and provides insight into past and current immigration laws. It’s not necessary to have bombastic slogans like “Abolish ICE” to be effective. And, frankly, “Abolish ICE” is an ineffective slogan/campaign as it fails to channel true immigration reform.

  3. I don’t think she “needs to work with an immigrant organization” to make the documentary legitimate. An organization as a whole doesn’t necessarily need to speak about the immigrant family condition, they can do so themselves. Which is what this documentary will do. How about reserve the criticism AFTER you’ve watched more than a 30 second trailer.

  4. Seriously – unless you saw a preview which none of us has seen yet, how can you criticise got this documentary without watching it or knowing the contents.

    I’ve worked with organizations that help both documented and illegal immigrants as well as worked and lived in many of their countries. Many of these “illegal” immigrants are fleeing poverty, gangs, corruption and hunger to say the least.

    And yes the immigrant community has a voice but its not loud enough and many are NOT AWARE of or heard about “Abolish Ice” or the AB 32 bill which so far is limited to California.

    But what’s most disturbing is your comment about how much damage (really-you can’t be serious) that this ill-informed documentary might do to the giant strides the undocumented migrant community has made. Plus the subtle racism, total lack of compassion, humanity and empathy which is in your op-ed piece is very very disturbing…………….

  5. Really you got all that from a trailer since the documentary has not been shown yet? As for Abolish Ice and Bill AB 32 many have not heard of it or aware of the movement. And the louder the voices for immigration reform the better.

    What is really disturbing though is your subtle racism and lack of compassion, humanity and empathy. Seriously – shame on you……

  6. Gary – your comment about the title of the documentary says a lot about what you think of this issue. Really your suggestion to rename it is just negative semantics and says a lot about how you have already judged and made up your mind about this doc and the serious issues surrounding it.

    This is not a political issue, it’ a humane one And unless you are a Native American you, your parents or grandparents were immigrants too. Wonder how would you (or they) would feel if they were treated so badly and denied entry or the ability to become citizens of the USA too?

  7. You are making assumptions about a series you have yet to see. Watch it in it’s ENTIRETY. This isn’t about Latinos. It’s about people from different countries that came here for the reason many of our ancestors did: To follow the American dream. These families you will see, are all different ethnicities. Men, women, children. They have business, they have homes, they have families and they WANT to become Americans… they want our liberties and freedoms, and they would be great assets to the communities. They just haven’t been able to go through the process for different reasons. Some of them have political figures backing them. They aren’t the “bad hombres” you hear about. They are your co-workers. Your neighbors. It is a must-see. It may even change your minds (IF you have open minds)

  8. I had watched the entire series. I am a legal immigrant and have sympathy for them. But their cases are special which can’t represent all undocumented people. The bottom line, there are so many people born unequally in this world. Done something unlawful to get what you want or where to be? I think is still wrong.

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