Student Filmmaker Shows One Young Woman’s Struggle for Citizenship

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — October 10, 2011 4 min read
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Last Thursday, The DREAMER, 17-year-old Emileigh Potter’s short film about an undocumented young woman’s experience as a poster child for the as-yet-unpassed federal DREAM Act, won “Most Inspiring Documentary” at PBS’s Project VoiceScape awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. Potter’s documentary was one of 15 winners selected from a pool of 240 by the PBS grant program--and one of three award winners to focus on the plight of undocumented immigrants.

The DREAM Act —short for “Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors” Act—would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents who were 15 or younger when they entered the country. Qualified students who have passed a background check and graduated high school or received a GED in the U.S. can receive a six-year conditional status; they then must spend at least two of those six years serving in the U.S. military or attending college in order to be eligible for the next steps on the path to citizenship. The DREAM Act would also reduce penalties for states that offer in-state tuition breaks to undocumented students.

The White House says the bill “will allow only the best and brightest young people to earn their legal status after a rigorous and lengthy process, and applies to those brought to the United States as minors through no fault of their own by their parents, and who know no other home.” Benita Veliz, the subject of Potter’s documentary, is one of these “bright young people"—a high school valedictorian who graduated from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Veliz is currently fighting to avoid being deported after she was found driving without a license.

Learning the Language chatted with the young filmmaker, Emileigh Potter, on Friday morning. Emileigh is a high school senior from San Antonio, Texas, who’s applying to study film next year.

Before you read excerpts from the interview, check out the documentary:

Education Week: How did you find Bennie Veliz?

Emileigh Potter: Bennie Veliz is a good friend, and she’s the main subject in the documentary. I didn’t know that she was undocumented. ...Then I helped her brother make a film about his sister and his family’s immigration to the United States. I was able to sit down and talk to her, and her story inspired me. I wanted to show that the DREAM Act was important for my friend Bennie. I needed people to know that Bennie is important, and she’ll be an asset once she’s a citizen of the United States.

EW: Where does Bennie’s case stand now?

EP: While we were filming, we found out that her deportation case has been pushed back to 2013—that means that she can stay here for another year without having to worry about being deported. Charlie Gonzales, our congressmen, had proposed a private bill. That helped to slow down the process of the deportation. Now she’s just trying to make a living. She graduated with a degree in biology and sociology, but she can’t do anything with her degree since she’s undocumented. She’s working for her local church, which is really helping her. All she can do is just wait.

EW: What did you learn from making the documentary?

EP: Stacy [director of a local media group] would send me information about current events that involve the DREAM Act. I learned that all the undocumented people who are going through the deportation process are going through background checks; if they get the background checks, they can go through the process of getting a visa. That’s good for Bennie. She hasn’t done anything wrong. She was a valedictorian, she worked hard. ... She doesn’t deserve to have to go to a place that she never called home. Making this documentary I’ve become very aware of how important the DREAM Act is.

EW: Who should watch your documentary?

EP: I think a lot of the general public. I looked at Sen. Richard Durbin’s Facebook page after a conference about the DREAM Act ... read these comments that were so negative to these students—calling them criminals, saying they don’t deserve this. If they saw this one student and how amazing she is, they’d understand ... none of these students are criminals. They should open up their minds. It would be the same thing for them if they had to come over for a religious reason or something—they would try their hardest to become a citizen and become an asset to the community. It would also be really relevant for politicians to see this so they’re knowledgeable on what they need to do.

Even high school students—one of my teachers showed it to my classmates, and I have gotten a lot of different feedback. Now they are aware of this issue, and they’ve seen this girl who’s an amazing person, they think a little differently. I guess I want a civilized dialogue to understand an issue like this.

EW: Is immigration a big issue in San Antonio?

EP: Being so close to the border with Mexico, I presume there would be a lot of undocumented people. But they keep it really quiet—they don’t want to speak out about status because of fear of what might happen. I could be sitting in class, and a student next to me might be undocumented. It’s a quiet situation.

EW: Say I’m inspired by your film and I want to do something—what can I do?

EP: There aren’t fundraisers or anything. There’ve been a few public assemblies. It’s all about the government. People can protest and show voice—if there’s a local DREAM Act Assembly they can show some support. Have to wait for it to be passed.

EW: How did you get interested in documentaries?

EP: They’re amazing at conveying a message. All documentaries, no matter good or bad—have a message or subject that needs to be conveyed and shown to the world. That’s what they help—to show issues that need to be under the light.

Best of luck to this student filmmaker. You can see the other films and learn more about Project VoiceScape here.

Video and photo courtesy of Project VoiceScape/POV.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.