SMU documentary to depict plight of undocumented students

Daniela Balderas and Erik Burgos, both SMU students, have seen the struggles that fellow students can go through if they are in the country illegally – and they wanted others to see those hardships, too.

The Dallas Morning News

Daniela Balderas and Erik Burgos have seen the struggles that fellow students can go through if they are in the country illegally – and they wanted others to see those hardships, too.

So, the two Southern Methodist University seniors decided to make a documentary about those students in North Texas.

"Typically, when we think of 'undocumented' we always think of an individual that's doing lawn work, washing dishes," Burgos said. "But rarely does the thought of a college student or college graduate cross our mind. We want to capture that side of a broken immigration policy."

Balderas, Burgos, and two other SMU students received a $1,500 grant from the school late last year to make the film. The grant is part of SMU's "Big iDeas" fund, which supports student projects that have an impact on Dallas.

They're hoping the documentary, called Boxed In, can dispel stereotypes about illegal immigrants and demonstrate the contributions they can make to society.

Most important, they want to convey a sense of urgency. An estimated 7,000 to 13,000 illegal immigrants enter colleges and universities each year, and graduates don't have a lot of options.

All they can do is wait for a pathway to citizenship and ask, "Why have I worked so hard to get an education that I may not even be able to use?"

"A lot of these students can't wait" to move forward, Balderas said.

Obstacles in planning

The young filmmakers came up with the idea for Boxed In late last year after watching a documentary called Papers, which follows the lives of illegal immigrants turning 18. They talk about the significant challenges they have faced, like the inability to work, drive or even go to college.

For those who manage to get into college, the difficulties can increase. They can't get federal scholarships or jobs to help finance their education, and they can't study abroad. Their future career paths are filled with more uncertainty than the typical college student's.

Those are the stories Balderas and Burgos want to tell.

"It's almost like an identity crisis," Burgos said. "If your opportunities are limited and you can't choose a career path, who are you?"

Once they had the grant, the students had big plans – maybe a little too big. Balderas envisioned an hourlong film featuring five local students, to be premiered at the Granada Theater on Greenville Avenue.

Michelle Houston, a lecturer in SMU's journalism department, helped bring the project down to size.

"Their original idea was impossible," Houston said.

She suggested that they make a 10-minute film focusing on one student's story, including a few other interviews. They then could post the film on social media websites such as Facebook and YouTube.

Finding the one student to feature was enough of a challenge, since most illegal immigrant students aren't keen on publicly talking about their status. The filmmakers are relying on a large network of friends and faculty advisers to find other students to interview.

"We're still looking for a graduate student," Balderas said. "That's proven to be really difficult."

For the most part, students in the film conceal their identities, revealing to the camera college acceptance letters and school trophies instead of their faces.

But the featured student, Edwin Romero, had no trouble being identified in Boxed In, because U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement already knows about him. In April, the Eastfield College sophomore was detained for two weeks while returning from a college student government conference. Airport security asked for a state ID, and he had none.

"I felt really out of place," Romero said of his time at the detention center. "People would ask me, 'What are you doing here?' because they saw that I was different. They saw that I spoke English."

Romero crossed the border from Mexico with his mother at age 6.

In order to attend the conference in Corpus Christi, Romero had to meet minimum GPA requirements and write an essay.

"What's horrible is that this was a school trip," Balderas said. "What got him into trouble was being a stellar student at this school."

She called students such as Romero "all-American," but at the same time, "not so American."

A judge will decide Romero's fate later this year or early next year.

Anticipating reactions

The students hope to complete the film by September, but it hasn't been easy to fit filming and editing into their busy summer schedules. Neither student knows anything about film or journalism – Balderas is a business major, while Burgos is an engineering major.

"They've never shot or edited a thing in their life," Houston said. "They didn't realize that people spend days shooting and editing a 30-second commercial."

To make things more difficult, Balderas and Burgos both have full-time internships with an outreach office at SMU this summer, and Balderas is even taking summer classes. So last week was the first time in several weeks that Balderas had to scroll through dozens of pages of transcribed interviews and start editing.

The students now understand that not everyone will respond well to Boxed In when it goes public. The anonymity that Internet users enjoy will lead to harsh, even hateful, feedback.

"'You're not going to get a pat on the back from everyone,' " Houston said she warned the students. " 'And I want you to know that, and think about it, and digest it before you put this out there.' "

Balderas hopes the film can help make a case.

"Some people will say, 'Well, they broke the law.' But who broke the law? They were brought here," she said of students such as Romero.

Houston added: "The response will be controversial, that's for sure. ...

"If they can tell a story ... that could only be good for SMU."

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