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.