Professor Guerra Chronicles Experience of Two Undocumented Alums in New Film

Monday, December 04, 2017
Photo of student David receiving commemorative hood at SF State graduation

At 16, David went in search of his parents and better educational opportunities. He crossed the Mexican border and found both in the Bay Area. That’s also where he discovered his love of science, which he pursued as an undergrad at UC Santa Cruz and later as a graduate student at San Francisco State University. When it came time to apply for jobs, he knew he had to make a tough choice. He’s undocumented, and in order to get hired at a U.S. company he’d have to apply for a work visa from Mexico. If he then tried to reenter the U.S., he would be banned from the country for 10 years for previously entering illegally, he said. So he crossed a different border.

“My friends in the Bay Area could get jobs in biotech companies. Of course, I couldn’t because I don’t have a social security number,” he said. “When Donald Trump became president I knew things were not going to be good for the undocumented community, so I made up my mind that leaving the country would be a good option.” He’s now conducting cancer research at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.

David is one of two undocumented students, identified only by their first names, featured in Resist: Documenting the Undocumented, a new film by SF State Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts (BECA) Assistant Professor Oscar Guerra. A number of students also helped him create the film. In the past, Guerra has made documentaries about the Mexican-American experience, and Resist is his way of challenging people’s perceptions of undocumented immigrants.

When he began the project in the spring of 2016, six students agreed to participate. After the 2016 election, that number dwindled to just two, he said. “There was this fear in the air. People were afraid of deportation,” he said. “DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] was rescinded in September, and this type of story became critical to tell.”

The film follows David and fellow student Pam during their final year at SF State. Pam was part of the DACA program, which means she arrived in the U.S. as a child and was protected from deportation. She can also obtain a driver’s license and is eligible for a work permit. David arrived in the U.S. when he was almost 17 and didn’t qualify for the program. Eventually, he was able to receive in-state tuition through California’s AB540, but he was ineligible for a work permit.

Currently, there are thousands of students in this same position, David said, and that’s what compelled him to participate in the documentary. “I wanted people to see that there are options. They might not be the best options, like sacrificing seeing your family for a few years,” he said. “But my career and my life are not dependent on any government.”

Pam said being undocumented affects every aspect of her life. “It’s not something you can leave at the door when you get home or when you go to work,” she said.

But she recognized that storytelling is a powerful way to share the experiences of people who aren’t often heard. “Right now, you’re hearing about the ‘Dreamers’ and DACA. DACA only benefitted approximately 800,000 people out of millions of immigrants,” she said. “It created this divide of the deserving immigrants — the dreamers — and the undeserving immigrants — everybody else. No one is less deserving because they didn’t qualify for a program with arbitrary rules.”

Guerra’s goal was to capture the diversity of the immigrant experience. “There is struggle. But also the resilience of the students at San Francisco State is inspiring,” he adds. The film will be screened on campus December 4, followed by a panel discussion. KQED public television has expressed interest in airing the film, he said, although no date has been set. Guerra is also planning to enter the documentary into film festivals.

— Jamie Oppenheim


Photo: David graduated in May 2017 from San Francisco State University with a master’s degree in molecular biology.

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