You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

How Netflix's 'Living Undocumented' Captured the 'Shocking' and 'Brazen' Behavior of ICE

Esquire logo Esquire 10/2/2019 Gabrielle Bruney
a man and a woman looking at the camera: We talked to the series' directors about the heartbreaking new documentary Living Undocumented and how they captured the shocking behavior of ICE. © Netflix We talked to the series' directors about the heartbreaking new documentary Living Undocumented and how they captured the shocking behavior of ICE.

The Trump administration’s assault on immigrants has been documented in heartbreaking viral videos. There was footage of Jimmy Aldaoud in Iraq, telling the story of his deportation to a country he’d never known and whose language he could not speak. He later died there, alone and unable access treatment for his diabetes. Millions viewed the video of a teenager crying as she danced the father-daughter dance at her quinceñera with her with her younger brother, a week after their father was reportedly detained by immigration officials. Farewells like Jose Garcia’s airport parting with his weeping family before his deportation to Mexico have spread online, too.

It was one such video that inspired the creation of Netflix’s new docu-series, Living Undocumented. Aaron Saidman, one of the series’ directors, and his producing partner Eli Holzman saw footage of an up-and-coming chef being detained by immigration officials. "He'd been in this country for nearly 20 years and he was on his way to a culinary event in Los Angeles when he was detained by ICE," Saidman said. "And that one person sparked a larger conversation about the issue as a whole. And we started to think about how many millions of stories are there out there like his that the public may not be aware of."

The series, which counts pop star Selena Gomez among its executive producers, examines families experiencing a range of struggles related to their immigration status. There are dramatic accounts that have made national news, like that of Alejandra Juarez, mother of two and wife of a Trump-voting U.S. Marine, who was deported to Mexico last year. But Living Undocumented also shows the mundane tragedies experienced by families so far spared the acute crises of detention or deportation, but who still must grapple with being unable to return to their home countries to visit dying parents, or navigate careers and educations aware that, at any time, all that they are building could be taken from them. “I always have to do everything scared,” says Israeli-American teenager Bar in the series.

"We debate these people and we talk about these people and we reference these people as statistics, but what we almost rarely do [is] hear directly from these people and understand what they're going through on a daily basis," Saidman said. "And so this series was designed to both bring the deeply personal stories to the fore as well as illuminating the incredibly complex immigration system." We talked to Saidman and co-director and executive producer Anna Chai about the new show.

Replay Video

The series begins on a frank note, with Mauritanian-American college student Awa saying, “You can watch a documentary and you can say, ‘Well, this is too bad.’ But at the end of the day it’s just something you’re watching on TV, and you can turn that off, and you can go about your life.” Why did you decide to being the series by addressing the audience so directly?

Saidman: All of that was designed really to connect directly to the viewer in the most visceral way possible as early on as possible. It is also the theme reason we chose to have the participants interviews done with them looking straight in the camera. Because the underlying goal was, we want the viewers to engage and plug in immediately and understand you're not just watching another news segment. You should feel as if you are sitting across the kitchen table from these undocumented immigrants and they're speaking directly to you in their own words. And we wanted to, in that specific instance that you're referencing, we wanted to make sure that we were getting people's attention.

How did you navigate safety concerns with the subjects of the series? Were they afraid of potentially being exposed to ICE's attention through participating in the documentary?

Saidman: I think safety and duty of care to our participants has been the most important thing to us and to the production and to Netflix. Everyone that participated did so because it was their choice to participate. And quite frankly, without their bravery in stepping up to tell their stories, there would of course be no series. So we're incredibly indebted to them for agreeing to share their stories with us. It was a decision that they all made, often in consultation and with the blessing of their own attorneys. But it's an incredibly brave decision, especially if you're not on the radar of ICE to come forward and tell your story to the world. And we're in awe of the fact that some of these people took that risk and in their minds it was that important to do so. And that they felt sharing their story would hopefully affect some sort of change.

a group of people looking at a cell phone: Alejandra Juarez fled violence in Mexico more than 20 years ago, married a U.S. Marine and had two daughters. Last year, she was deported. © Courtesy of Netflix Alejandra Juarez fled violence in Mexico more than 20 years ago, married a U.S. Marine and had two daughters. Last year, she was deported.

There’s a pretty horrifying moment in the second episode—an attorney for one of the series’ subjects, Luis, is physically assaulted by an ICE official who shoves her out of the door of a detention center after detaining him. What was it like to film that?

Chai: “Shocking" is probably the best word to describe it. It was the middle of the night, it was raining, we were all in the parking lot with other local news crews there as well. No one expected anything like that to happen. And so, we were lucky to capture that moment because those are things that are happening, right? We managed to capture that moment and we're able to share that with people. But I think again, like one of the things about the series is that it has six episodes, a lot of time and really get to know these characters, get to know their lives, their situation, hear from them directly. And so when you have those kinds of moments—well, for everyone there, it was not an easy thing to watch. For that to happen to Luis, for his attorney to have every right to accompany him into the building for that to happen to her, it's just not something you expect to see.

Do you know if there are ever any professional repercussions for that ICE agent?

Saidman: We had heard that they were potentially looking into it, but we don't have any actual confirmation. And I just want to underscore one thing that Anna just said. One of the things I thought was particularly shocking was that they did that so brazenly in the presence of cameras. I mean they saw our cameras and there were other cameras there from the protestors and the local media. And I think that sort of brazen behavior was part of what took us aback, because they knew we were filming the whole thing. And I think that speaks to a certain attitude and character on behalf of those particular agents.

a young boy brushing his teeth: Living Undocumented follows Vinny, who navigates interactions with ICE as an immigrant with a criminal record. © Courtesy of Netflix Living Undocumented follows Vinny, who navigates interactions with ICE as an immigrant with a criminal record.

The series seemed to subvert the “good immigrant” narrative. One of the most invoked xenophobic fears about immigrants is that they might be involved in the drug trade, your show featured Vinny, who has a drug conviction, but showcased his humanity and his value.

Chai: I mean for me, I think Vinny is really interesting because there are lots of different ways that immigrants come to the U.S. and Vinny happened to be a political refugee, right? He was political asylum because it his father was in the Laotian army. And as I understand it, he would've been eligible for a green card, but he didn't pursue it when he was younger. And then when he got into trouble with the law, that status was no longer available to him. He's someone who spent over 10 years in prison. He served his time, he got a degree, he got trained with a trade doing HVAC. He found religion, he found a wife and a family.

Saidman: As filmmakers, we're not taking a position on the issue. The viewers will see these different stories including Vinny's and they will have to make up their own minds. And I think one of the virtues of the show, we hope, is that we showed an incredibly diverse range of stories.

One of my favorite scenes in the series is the one in which Pablo, whose family fled threats of violence in Colombia, is talking to his mom and dad, and his parents are drawing a distinction between themselves and less upwardly mobile immigrants, while Pablo argues that other immigrants aren’t any less worthy because they’re poorer.

Saidman: I agree, that is one of the most fascinating scenes to me in the show. And we talked a lot about that in the editing room. One of the things that I think it reflects is that there isn't uniformity on the immigration issue amongst immigrants themselves, and that's okay. And we wanted to reflect that. There's also an interesting generational divide in that scene that's reflected in that conversation, in my opinion. And so I think it's important not to present the viewpoint monolithically and just assume that every immigrant is in support of every other immigrant trying to come to this country. There are nuances and complexities—and that scene evokes that.

AdChoices

More from Esquire

AdChoices
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon