Students Ask for Recognition in Film

On March 8, the Center for the Study of Democracy invited the students of St. Mary’s to Cole Cinema for a showing of the documentary Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth. The film chronicles the lives of five high school or post-high school students who have enough accolades and academic integrity to attend college, but cannot do so because they are illegal immigrants.

To preface the documentary, José Ballesteros, Associate Professor of Spanish, said that there are “ten-thousand students raised [in the U.S.] illegally who have a limited access to jobs and education” after they graduate from high school.

The showing of the film coincided with the Maryland General Assembly’s consideration of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act. Presently, illegal immigrants who are accepted into state colleges must pay out-of-state tuition, even if they have lived in Maryland for years.

Maryland’s version of the DREAM Act would make illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children eligible for in-state tuition. The DREAM Act rejected by Congress last year would have made two years in college or two years in the military a step towards gaining citizenship.

Papers follows five students on their search for post-high school success. Monica is a giggly teenager who hopes to marry her boyfriend in the near future. However, threats of deportation to Guatemala make her worry about staying with him in the country she calls home.

Jorge is an outspoken young man who struggles with two minority statuses as an illegal Latino immigrant and a homosexual. Yo Sub is a Korean high school student and a National AP Scholar. All twelve colleges he applied to rejected his application because of his illegal status.

Simone, who moved to the U.S. from Jamaica as a child, is barred from attending college and takes dead-end jobs with meager pay–the only jobs employers are willing to give to an illegal immigrant. Juan overcomes his initial disinterest with school in order to fulfill his promise to his mother that he would earn a high school diploma. However, he wonders what is next for him after high school.

The documentary notes how these students do what the government tells them to: stay out of trouble, stay in school, and work hard. Their efforts go unrewarded; the government refuses to grant them access to citizenship, let alone a college education. The film notes that the federal government guarantees secondary education for illegal immigrants, but does not provide for these same students in their college careers.

The citizenship issue ties in with the DREAM Act because illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children have a harder time gaining citizenship than their parents. Undocumented immigrants usually ask for asylum from the government or get help from family members who already live in the country. Without these conditions, the citizenship process is very difficult to navigate.

Papers describes how immigrants built and shaped the United States economy from its earliest days—African slavery was a forced immigration that greatly fueled North and South Americas’ economies, and Irish and Chinese immigrants built railroads in the U.S. a few centuries later.

The film explains immigration history to show how the U.S., “a country of immigrants,” is so ironically unwelcoming and inflexible towards its new inhabitants.

The documentary ended hopefully, with undocumented students from all over the country staging a mock graduation in Washington, D.C. in support of the DREAM Act that was voted down in Congress. Four out of the five students interviewed in the film were attending or already graduated from college.

After the film, Ballesteros introduced the discussion panel: Anthony Colon,  a “foremost diversity advocate” and lawyer who brought educational reform to the Latino/a community; Elias Vlanton, whom Ballesteros described as “the most caring educator” he ever met, is a social studies teacher to immigrant students at Bladensburg High School in Prince George’s County; Angie Gutierrez, a junior at Bladensburg High School and an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, is also the president of her class and the first sophomore in her high school to earn a score of five on an Advanced Placement exam.

Vlanton began the discussion, saying that he “thought the film was very powerful.” He explained that the U.S. “wanted workers, and what [it] got was people” who are in need of basic human rights.

He reiterated the film’s notion that “everyone benefits from blue-collar workers,” and the disintegration of the DREAM Act would “suppress a vast chunk of the [U.S.] labor force.”

Gutierrez commented that she can not afford to pay out-of-state tuition at Maryland state universities, and found watching the film with her mother to be “very emotional.”

Colon, a Latino, began his reflection on the film by recalling a time when he was in Leonardtown, MD around 30 years ago and was told to walk on the opposite side of the street in order to avoid “trouble.”

He admits that the issue of undocumented immigration has “a lot of gray.”  However, he attributes the government’s unwillingness to promote the DREAM Act to “benign racism,” meaning unintentional racism that is not overtly malicious. Instead, it is shown in subtle ways like the hindrance of the DREAM Act or being told to walk on the opposite side of the street.

The DREAM Act under consideration in Maryland was recently approved by the Maryland State Senate on March 15 and the bill will soon move to the Maryland House of Delegates.


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