WILLIAMSTOWN -- There are about 2 million undocumented children in the United States. While some brand these children "illegal immigrants," the makers of the film "Papers" hope the perception will switch to viewing them as our future.
"Papers" screens at Images Cinema at 7 p.m., on Thursday, Nov. 8.
The film follows the lives of five undocumented teens, brought to the country by their parents, through no choice of their own. Raised in America and identifying with the United States as their home, these kids face the reality of their status as high school ends and they learn their legal limitations when seeking employment, driver’s licenses and college.
Director Anne Galisky’s hope was to personalize the issue, to give it a human face by presenting real kids who buck the stereotype.
Galisky and her partner, producer Rebecca Shine, were involved with a mentoring program in Portland, Ore., that included a number of undocumented youth. They got to know these kids and their friends and their families, and helped them navigate their reality without citizenship papers.
"We were trying to figure out what to do to keep their hopes up and our hopes up and to do something constructive and to keep everybody busy," Galisky said. "A few of them made this three-minute slide show and it was received really well. We had a big meeting with the young people and a lot of their parents and said that we’re thinking about making a movie. What do you think?"
That 2007 meeting became an emotional, tearful gathering, with parents sharing their immigration stories and many teens encountering their parents’ tales for the first time. Galisky and Shine partnered with the families to work on the film.
By the time filming began in 2009, the climate had changed so rapidly that it became harder to find undocumented people willing to go on camera. The team of youth producers working with Galisky and Shine began collecting stories from around the country -- written and spoken -- as a way of building what the film would eventually become.
"There are undocumented students in every state and they are starting to go public," said Galisky. "When they go public, people identify with them and want to do something and want to fix the system. They’ve built up their movement by going public. It’s incredibly brave, and I’m so grateful to the five young people in our film who decided that’s what they wanted to do."
Galisky has her own family immigration story that originally brought her to the subject. Her father’s family came to Mexico via the Ukraine, and after seven years as poor ranch workers there, attempted to emigrate to the United States in 1935.
"My grandfather went to the Juarez/El Paso border, found an American lawyer and hired him to get the family in legally," she said. "He gave the lawyer all their money, and this lawyer suggested that they buy some land sight unseen and try to get in on a farmer’s quota. He went back home -- they lived on a ranch about 100 miles south -- got everybody, came back and found the law yer was gone and the papers were gone and the money was gone."
The family hired guides known as "coyotes" to take them over the border. Once they crossed, Galisky’s grandfather planned to explain the situation to American authorities.
"The older kids remembered riding horses across the Rio Grande in the middle of the night, and they had these guides, and they got to El Paso," Galisky said. "In the morning, my grandfather went to immigration and turned himself in. He really thought that he could just say that there’s been a big mistake. They arrested him, of course, and kept him in jail for a month and put my grandmother and the five kids under house arrest in a Catholic charity."
The family was eventually released on their own recognizance, with no instructions. Galisky assumes they were supposed to just leave, al though they didn’t and built a life for themselves in America.
That began to unravel during the Red Scare in the 1950s, when her father was accused as being a communist, along with the rest of the family.
"My dad ultimately, as a 19-year-old who never was in Russia and was certainly never a communist, was ordered deported to the country of his birth, which was Mexico," Gal isky said, "because they said that he was disloyal to the Unit ed States of America. That came from the fact that he didn’t register for the draft on his 18th birthday. The war wasn’t on yet. He said, ‘but I registered as soon as the war started,’ and they said that’s not good enough."
He had already enlisted and sped up his induction; his commanding officer wrote a letter on his behalf. Meanwhile, Gal isky’s grandfather went to Can ada, hired a lawyer, paid a fine and returned. Other family mem bers fixed their status through either military service or marrying someone in the military.
Years later, Galisky sees that much hasn’t changed in regard to undocumented immigrants, and in some ways has gotten worse. For instance, the military is no longer an option.
Galisky says immigration issues are often wrapped up in labor ones, as well as racism. Too often racist legislation leads to other problems, and violence against minorities is directly related to whatever group popular mania blames for economic woes.
Galisky’s master’s studies focused on the Japanese in ternment in World War II. She was shocked when she discovered the connection between that and the influx of Mexican workers that hasn’t stopped.
"They had governor’s meetings of West Coast governors, talking about what are we going to do without all the food that the Japanese farmers are growing," she said. "In my country, they grew about half of the table produce, so it was going to be a really big deal. As part of the plan to intern the Japanese Americans, they had to make a labor plan, so they went to Mexico and recruited millions of workers."
Galisky points out earlier incidents, like the Chinese Ex clusion Act that was designed to keep Chinese immigrants out of the gold rush, as examples of immigrant phobia be coming legislation. Limiting the access of the American Dream [and denying it] to foreigners seems as much a part of being an Am erican as trying to access that dream yourself.
"A really big part of what we were trying to accomplish was to talk about why, why do people come? What’s the draw?" said Galisky. "Nowadays, it’s a result of NAFTA and corn prices in Mexico. The cost of growing corn in Mexico in creased, but folks could buy it from the U.S., which is subsidized. It was not a level playing field whatsoever, so it became cheaper for Mexico to import corn than to grow it. For small farmers, that was a disaster. We do have a global economy, but how are we going to handle it if goods and money can freely cross borders, but people can’t?"
The panic that grips citizens of our country reflects an institutional racism that feeds on the fear of the unknown and is sparked by frantic self-preservation. As the population changes, people get more frightened of the outsiders.
"There’s this huge demographic shift that’s happening where people of color are going to be the majority," Gal isky said. "What’s going to hap pen? How are white folks going to handle that? Are people going to say that change is good?"
Galisky sees that young immigrant activists are working hard to prepare for that future, trying to shift the public perception of their parents as criminals through efforts like "Drop the I Word," which tries to convince news sources to stop pairing the word illegal with immigrant.
"For the most part, these people have not broken any criminal law; it’s a civil statute. They came without inspection, and this language set the fire," Galisky said. "I think language is really important. This whole culture discussion at the newspapers about the use of the terms illegal immigrant and illegal alien is a really big deal because that’s taking away the humanity of people who are right next to us. If you take away their humanity, you can do anything to them."
As part of the follow-up effort, a book called "Papers" was also recently released, compiling 30 of the many stories that were sent to them when the film was being formulated, illustrated by an undocumented worker.
And the filmmakers conducted interviews at both the Dem ocratic and Republican conventions for their next film, which is about the 14th A mend ment and birthright citizenship.
"Change is good and different people bring different things, and our unity shouldn’t be about the color of our skin," Galisky said. "We came from all over and that’s what makes us strong. It’s going to be young people who carry us forward. Hopefully we can back them up and teach good history so we can move forward knowing some of the stuff that really happened."
"Papers" can be found online at papersthemovie.com.