Global politics and an influx in migration have surged immigrant stories to the forefront of mainstream television. From Jane the Virgin to Fresh off the Boat, the entertainment industry is coming to realise the value of thought-provoking and complex stories of immigrants. But wherever mainstream fiction may minimise the multifaceted realities of border crossings and forced deportations with unrealistic happy endings, documentaries excel in authentically depicting what it means to be an immigrant today.

Living Undocumented

Netflix’s Living Undocumented is one series to have achieved such a feat. Directed by Aaron Saidman and Anna Chai, the docuseries follows the lives of eight families in the US without legal status. Saidman and Chai challenge a widespread anti-immigrant sentiment by offering a first-hand look into the lives of migrants. We watch as the families work, celebrate birthdays and interact with their loved ones even with the fear of being detained or deported.

What sets this series apart is how it manages to capture a range of immigrant experiences. “It could have been really easy to make the show about Mexico or Central America,” Chai told the Vulture, “but we purposely tried to find stories in other parts of the world…. because it’s not just an alien border story.”

In doing so, the plot personnalises an issue that has always been a hot-button in American politics: the reasons for migrations and the obstacles that come with it. Saidman and Chai remained focused on the lives a ected by the country’s broken immigration system, detailing reasons from economic instability, gang violence, war and physical safety.

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Despite what the American Dream may have you believe, the series shows that hardships for immigrants never stop. Under the Trump Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has redirected efforts from apprehending undocumented criminals, as they had under former President Barack Obama, to detaining and deporting anyone without papers — known as the ‘Zero Tolerance Policy’. This strategy includes separating children from their families with no plans for reunification. The series boldly shows the malicious methods used by ICE and the brazen means employed to achieve them.

In one shocking case, a Honduran man named Luis drives over 11 hours to drop his girlfriend’s son at an ICE facility where he is scheduled to be deported. Although Luis is also undocumented and risks being captured, he is told by ICE that he can say goodbye to the child outside the facility. Instead, we watch as ICE officials deceptively lure Luis inside and detain him for two months, injuring his lawyer in the process. These scenes are all captured in the docuseries and witnessed by dozens of protestors.

Truly Belong - Living Undocumented
A girl and her father stand with some 200,000 immigrants’ rights activists flood the National Mall to demand comprehensive immigration reform on March 21, 2010 in Washington DC.

With a team of experts and lawyers providing insight on the bureaucracy of the immigration system, Saidman and Chai don’t lose sight of their focus – the families. Whether it’s never seeing loved ones again or living in constant fear, Living Undocumented forces viewers to empathise with immigrants, an important accomplishment, particularly during a politically divisive era. Capturing the highs and lows, the series provides a stark reminder that immigration isn’t a one-size ts all issue and that behind each case is a person willing to risk everything.

This story first appeared in the 2021 print issue of Truly Belong under the title “Families that Risk All.”

Aisha Mohamed