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08 May 0 Comment

Immigration Reform from the Ground Up: A Filmmaker’s Perspective

When I embarked on this journey over four years ago, I never thought I would witness what is happening in the country today: Congress is seriously debating passage of a bill that would overhaul our dysfunctional immigration system. What’s more, after several failed attempts in the past couple of decades, it looks as though the legislation has a real shot at becoming law.

As a filmmaker and a first generation Hispanic American, I had only one thought in mind when I started directing DREAM: An American Story and that thought was: “I need to help the Hispanic American community in this nation.”

Why did I feel that way at the beginning of 2009? Because after the last failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, a strong and honest attempt spearheaded by the Bush Administration, the national tone over immigration had taken a decisive turn for the worst. And the alarming rhetoric that I began to hear seemed to be directed at a very specific subset of the immigrant community, Hispanics.

That’s why when I read a story about an exceptional undocumented student from Colombia, I knew that this would be my next film. Since that time, and entering our fifth year of production, I have come to know Juan Gomez as an American. He is everything that America stands for: smart, talented, and hard-working. He also thoroughly believes in the American Dream, that by hard work, discipline and application, you can make a better life for yourself. And I don’t know if there’s anything more American than that belief. And I don’t know of anything that makes you more American than believing in the American Dream. And Juan Gomez is living proof of that.

As I followed Juan’s trials and tribulations, as well as great successes, I also got to know several players in the emerging youth activist movement that began advocating for passage of the DREAM Act in 2008. Since that time, the movement has become a truly national movement, represented by two main umbrella organizations, United We Dream and Dream Activist. The young undocumented students that make up the movement have also shown me what it means to be politically active in a democracy, and how to use that political advocacy to advance social justice. To me, they represent the best of what this great nation stands for, the use of democratic tools to change unjust laws. So I started following that strand in the film as well.

In 2010, Arizona introduced SB 1070, one of the most regressive anti-immigrant laws to have been passed by any state legislature until that time. Soon after, other states, like Alabama and Georgia, followed suit with their own copycat laws, which targeted members of the undocumented immigrant community, especially Latinos. At that time, I thought that any hope for passage of a national immigration bill would not emerge for many, many more years to come.

But oh, was I wrong. It turns out that I wasn’t alone, that many Latinos in the US felt the same way I felt at the time. I felt that the heated rhetoric and mean spirited comments aimed at the most vulnerable members of the Hispanic community in this nation were unjust and simply untrue. Furthermore, as I followed the characters in the documentary I was filming, and as I encountered and talked to many other Americans of Hispanic descent, I began to realize that an overwhelming majority of the Hispanic American population in the US cared very deeply about immigration reform, and that although it didn’t show up as a top concern in most of the national polls, it was an issue that could definitely stir the emotions of a population that, by association, felt unjustly vilified.

Undocumented and Unafraid - REPRESENT!_5440309396_o

And so, as they say, the rest is history. On November 6, 2012 Latinos went to the polls in droves and overwhelmingly voted for President Obama, the candidate that seemed most likely to do something about immigration reform if re-elected.

And so, this is where we are today: The political climate surrounding the issue of immigration has changed considerably in the last six months and at this very moment, the Senate has introduced its immigration reform bill and the House is expected to follow with their own version any day now. The fact that politicians from both sides of the aisle are finally responding to the national call for reform is not an accident. Due to tremendous activism by DREAMers, immigration reform advocacy organizations, pro-immigrant activists and concerned citizens all over the U.S., the 2012 Presidential Election showed just how important the issue of immigration is to a large majority of the populace.

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And that is why I decided to release segments of an as yet unfinished film, to tell the story of how we got here. Maybe after watching the episodes, you can take part in the last chapter of the film — the one I hope will close the documentary on a high note. And although Congress is clearly motivated to pass immigration reform this year, objections from anti-immigration forces are already emerging, so passage is by no means a foregone conclusion. It still remains a considerable challenge.

I believe that as a nation, we have the power to emerge from this challenge with a new understanding of who we are as Americans, incorporating our history, ideals and tradition: A tradition that has always led us to ultimately embrace the new hopes and new faces of immigrants from all over the globe, and a history that has made us a shining beacon of freedom for the rest of the world.

Watch the featured episodes from the film. Get to know the issue from the ground up. See if you feel differently after viewing the documentary. And then go out and do something about it.

Aldo Bello
DREAM: An American Story

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