Interview: Documentary American DREAMers Puts Faces to Immigration Issue

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In 2012 before his re-election, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allowing 1.7 million undocumented youth  a legal presence in the United States and 2-year work permits. Not only did immigration groups pressure the President into acting on his promise for immigration reform, but undocumented youth staged a series of sit-ins and hunger-strikes in Obama’s campaign offices in cities across the nation. For some that included walking 3,000 miles across America to do so. The feature documentary “American DREAMers” chronicles a group of college students, young professionals, activists, and community leaders walking across America to fight for immigration reform at a huge risk to themselves. For some, it meant coming out publicly as undocumented. CineMovie spoke to first-time directors Saray Deiseil and Jenniffer Castillo about their feature documentary, “American DREAMers.”

Describing themselves as “undocumented and unfraid, seven activist (some undocumented) from, Immigrant Youth Coalition, and the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) planned to walk across the nation for immigration rights to put pressure on President Obama during his re-election for President of the United States. Filmmakers Saray Deiseil and Jenniffer Castillo found out about the Campaign for an American DREAM (CAD) journey through a Google alert. Jenniffer Castillo was researching another project about immigration when this opportunity to document the young activist’s walk across the nation came up. She called her partner Saray Deiseil, and within a week they made contact with the group. The two filmmakers were working on a show together, and when the production went into hiatus, they joined the group a month into their walk.

“American DREAMers” focuses on undocumented activists Jonatan Martinez, Veronica Gomez, Alex Alda, Nico Gonzales, Javier Hernandez and American citizen Raymi Waira Gutierrez whose family received deportation letters. Jonatan found out his illegal status when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. Veronica’s dream includes becoming a police officer after earning a B.A. in Criminal Justice. Only three of those young people make it to the end of the 8-month journey. “American DREAMers” follows the personal and external hardships the group faces leading to some abandoning the walk, but not the cause.

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Castillo tells CineMovie she and Deiseil were by their side every step of the way chronicling their adventures.

“I actually did a lot of walking next to them because as a writer, I wanted to learn their story and we both wanted to be in a place where we understood the best we could what they were going through.”

That included eating with them and sleeping wherever they were. They saw themselves as “flies on the wall.” Deiseil explains some in the group were not self-conscious about the prying cameras. They were used to the limelight through their activist work, and others quickly learned to ignore the cameras.

“American DREAMers” puts a face to the immigration issues specifically on Veronica Gomez, Jonatan Martinez and Raymi Waira Gutierrez who see it through the end, but not without breaking down. Their personal stories and struggles are heartbreaking to watch, and by the end - you may be inspired to join the fight.

The young activists did change some minds during their journey through middle America. Castillo recounts an encounter with a conservative Christian trucker and Rush Limbaugh fan. One of the women sat down with him and shared her family story. He listened patiently, says Deiseil.  

“After hours of sitting with them, he was like ‘Oh, my god! You need to go on these conservative radio shows and talk about your story because it’s people like you we need to know about.’ In the media, they are only seeing the drug cartel and the ugly side of it.”

That’s the beauty of the film, says Castillo, and the reason they wanted to do it. “Who is this affecting and how are they being affected.”

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Not all of middle America was receptive to the movement. What shocked Castillo the most while documenting the activist’s struggles was the amount of small towns in America. We hear of small town America, but “there are a lot of small towns in America,” and some of those they avoided like the “sundown towns” of Idaho and Illinois. Deiseil explains the “sundown towns.”

“Certain areas when the sun goes down, you don’t want to enter because they will harass people of color. When you actually walk the country, you spend a little time in each state, and you get a macro-perspective of what this county is and the people in it.”  

Castillo adds these are the people coming out in support of Donald Trump. When we bring up Trump’s negative campaign on the immigration issue, the filmmakers would rather not waste their breath on the Presidential hopeful except to say that they would encourage everyone to hit the polls on election day, otherwise, the country may be taking “10 steps backwards if he’s elected.”

However, responses on the road with the activists was an overall positive experience with receptive people along the way even after two of the walkers admitted their illegal status on local newscasts.

Saray Deiseil and Puerto Rican-native Jenniffer Castillo set out to put a face to the immigration problem, but they hope “American DREAMers” will inspire others to join the activists in their fight for immigration rights. How could you do that? Besides voting, they would like to see people get involved in city chapters with the dream activist organizations. (see links below.)

“The activist are very active in different cities across the nation. We would love for people to seek out the dream activist in their cities. They’re helping people in detention centers with resources. And they continue to do sit-ins and protests in front of detention centers.”

In the meantime, “American DREAMers” is being screened at universities, and they are currently looking for small distributors to show the film. The feature documentary is also available for private screenings if anyone is interested. (Contact below)

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As for President Obama, neither he nor his administration have responded to the activists or commented about “American DREAMers.”

As for activists Jonatan Martinez and Veronica Gomez, the documentaries prologue is heartbreaking. While the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allowed for a temporary solution, they are still fighting deportation and their dreams to serve their country is a fleeting dream. For Alex Aldana, he voluntarily returned to Mexico, and is currently organizing deported youth in Mexico and other Latin American countries to bring them back to the United States.   

It’s been three years since the walk across the country documented in “American DREAMers,” but Castillo and Deiseil still keep in contact with their new friends.

“We’re all friends. They’re family, and we’re still very united with them.”

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#americandreamers #adfilm

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