In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to finish watching “Living Undocumented” on Netflix, a docuseries that I couldn’t seem to watch without tearing up and pausing every 20 minutes to collect myself.
The trauma of leaving behind a poverty-ridden and often dangerous country only to be met with discrimination and human rights violations in another. The daily fear of deportation and being separated from your family without warning. And the feeling that you will never belong in this country despite spending more than half your life here, paying taxes and building a community with fellow Americans.
Being undocumented is a concept that is difficult to understand when it isn’t your reality.
But as the daughter of an undocumented parent, everything about this series hit extremely close to home.
I was reminded of the times when we were searching for houses to rent. Because most landlords prefer smaller families, and I live with my extended family from my dad’s side, it meant lying and saying my mother didn’t live with us. Each time the landlord would come to collect rent or do an inspection, my mother would hide in her room until he left.
Or during my senior year in high school when I was filing FAFSA and CSS for financial aid, hoping that the government or universities wouldn’t ask for more when I left out my mother’s information. One wrong click and I could potentially wake up the next morning without a mom.
Not to mention when I first made friends at Lehigh and when the topic of undocumented immigrants arose, I had to smile and listen to my friends casually talk about these immigrants as illegal beings as if my own mother wasn’t one herself.
These are just a few of the moments in my life that portray the reality of having an undocumented family member.
I can’t even begin to fathom what my mom must feel.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, I also noticed a pattern while watching this docuseries.
Recordings of speeches from modern presidential campaigns all focused around the words “law and order.”
It may seem like an innocent phrase, but what they really mean is the false criminalization of marginalized communities seeking asylum or searching for financial opportunities.
The rhetoric of othering is used to create an environment of fear and hatred against people of color, mostly Mexicans and Central Americans.
Instead of proposing better solutions on how to solve the larger issue of unlawful entry, it was about separating children from their families as a deterrent. Essentially, it was an act of dehumanization that allows ICE agents to racially profile and detain undocumented immigrants in inhumane conditions for however long they want.
And at the end of the last episode, my heart broke again.
A 12-year-old girl who had been separated from her family for over four months is finally released into their custody. She recites the Pledge of Allegiance that she learned in the detention center and afterward, she is asked how that made her feel and how she feels about being in the United States. Her response to both questions was, “Happy.”
The interviewer pressed on, “After all that you’ve been through, has your view of this country changed?”
With a little smile playing on her lips, she answered no.
It hurt me to see this girl have so much hope and faith in her new home. A home that had forced her to live apart from her family in a cold, gray building with barely any food. A home that professes liberty and justice for all yet ICE employees are not punished for sexually abusing women and children. A home that “loses” nearly 1,500 migrant children. A home that sprays disinfectant multiple times a day in poorly ventilated and crowded detention centers, causing detainees to bleed and burn.
Yet at the same time, her smile and her words gave me hope for a better America, where instead of criminalizing foreigners and people of color, we help them with welcoming arms. A country where policymakers and common citizens alike treat immigrants with respect.
And for starters, that means getting rid of the term “illegal immigrants” from your vocabulary and replacing it with “undocumented immigrants.” If there is anything I learned from watching this docuseries, it’s that language is everything.
The word illegal is outdated and carries negative connotations of criminality that exploits racial fear and places the blame entirely on individual immigrants rather than the larger system. The term also affects the undocumented community’s sense of identity in a harmful manner.
So let’s avoid it. And let’s educate ourselves to do better and sensitize ourselves to fight against injustice.
Let’s all play our part in being allies so that the United States of America can truly live up to its name as the land of the free.
Jessica Mun is a community engagement editor for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected]