I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"When people look at me on the street, I look like a typical young American." 
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In this short documentary, filmmaker Pang Tubhirun explores the role of "deferred action" for people like herself, who were brought to the United States as children and live in the country illegally. (Under President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order, eligible immigrants—commonly known as "DREAMers"—are granted employment authorization and temporary reprieve from deportation.) An interview with Tubhirun is below, where she discusses her life as an undocumented immigrant, her fears about making the film, and what she'll do if she is deported. The interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity.


Chris Heller: Why did you make this documentary?

Pang Tubhirun: I knew that I wanted to work with an undocumented immigrant from an Asian heritage. A lot of times in the media, there are people talking about Hispanic undocumented immigrants, but there aren't a lot of Asians who come out and speak about it. I wanted to work with someone who seems like a normal, typical United States citizen—but they had this dark secret. Like myself. When people look at me on the street, I look like a typical young American.

C.H.: Is that why you decided to include yourself as a subject?

P.T.: To be honest, we were watching my film in class [at Salt Institute for Documentary Studies] and my classmates couldn't connect to it. That's when I started to come out about my history. My instructor, Ann Bailey, encouraged me to put myself into the story. I didn't take her suggestions for a while because I was scared. I finally did it a couple weeks before school ended.

I went back to [film subject Marc Banzuela] and asked him how he felt about me putting myself into the story. That's how it worked out. It wasn't something I sought to do at the beginning at all.  I just wanted to tell Marc's story and make a film about young, undocumented Asians. Then it just kind of happened.

C.H.: You say you have friends who don't know about your background. Was it difficult to reveal that part of your life in the film?

P.T.: Yes, it was very difficult. That's why I fought the advice for so long. When I finally put myself into the piece, it was a rush of emotions: nervousness and excitement. I was lucky to have such supporting peers and instructors. It was really difficult. I didn't want to do it. At the end, I felt like it made me feel better about myself and my status. Coming clean, dealing with it. Accepting it as an adult, you know?

C.H.: It's a very brave thing to do. How have people responded?

P.T.: I actually haven't shown many people. I just showed my family a week ago. I've only shared it with a few close friends so far. The response has been really, really great. People are receptive. I have a friend who came to the show at the school, who is a Republican and her views of undocumented immigrants are opposite of mine, and I was nervous to show her. 

I haven't been outspoken about it. It makes me nervous, you know? It's scary, but that's something that I'm okay with. If people are not going to be receptive to it, maybe I shouldn't have them in my life. I'm really proud of it. To accept myself, I just have to put it out there.

C.H.: As you explain in the film, your DACA status expires in a few months. Can you tell me about the renewal process? When will you find out the result?

P.T.: I'm being represented by a lawyer because I want to get the paperwork right. I just started my renewal process this past Tuesday. I just had to go in, fill out some paperwork, show the income that I've made, and that I haven't left the country or gotten into any trouble. That's it. My status expires on November 29.

C.H.: How did your life change when you gained DACA status?

P.T.: When I got my card, I cannot describe to you how I was feeling. It was the best moment of my life. It was so awesome. I was finally able to get on an airplane. I felt confident about exploring the United States. What I was really excited about was working legally and paying my taxes, something that some citizens might take for granted. Having my own bank account was really exciting. Going to school! Going to school was really exciting for me. It's changed me a lot. I was able to register a photography business after I received DACA. I'm not afraid to put my work out there. I feel more confident as a person. I feel more whole.

But people with DACA are still considered undocumented. It's a release, but it's sort of shameful at the same time. You still feel very vulnerable. You have good days and you have bad days. For me, personally, living undocumented for all these years has had an effect. I never felt like I could be confident as a person. When I'm able to speak with someone I'm close to about my status, it makes me feel like an actual person. It makes me feel like a whole person, that I'm not just excluding a portion of myself.

C.H.: Even if your DACA status is renewed, as you explain, it's not a path toward citizenship. What do you hope is the next step for immigration reform?

P.T.: I don't know. I hope that, in a couple years, there's an attachment to DACA for people like myself, who have shown the government that we want to be productive parts of the United States. Giving back to the economy. Trying to live normally and legally. I hope that there's an incentive for an extension of the work permit, so you don't have to live within these two-year limits. Or a pathway to a naturalization process. Anything from getting a residential alien status, or a permanent residency status, so someone like me can continue to work legally without worrying. Anything like that. 

A few people have this notion that undocumented immigrants are lazy and live off the system, but I wanted to make this film to show that's not always the case. I wanted to prove to people that undocumented immigrants are not lazy and living off taxpayers' money.  People want to be here.

C.H.: If your don't get a renewal, what will you do?

P.T.: I'm not quite sure. I was advised to lay low, go back into the shadows, but anybody can come get you and detain you. I suppose I'll seek out any option that I have. I speak Thai, but I don't know it well. It would be nice to see my family back in Thailand again, since I haven't seen them since I moved to the United States, so that would be one good thing.

I was also advised to get married, but that's not something I want to do. That's a last resort. I'd rather exhaust all my other options, and even go back to living undocumented, than do that. I guess I would either go back to Thailand and try to come back to the States, or go back to being undocumented again. Without being able to work legally, I suppose my photography business would fold. I don't know.

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Chris Heller is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. He has also written for NPR, Washington City Paper, and Metro Weekly.

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