Michigan filmmaker produces Netflix series 'Living Undocumented' for firsthand stories
When Sean O'Grady returned to his home state of Michigan last year, he was looking for inspiration for his next unscripted film project.
What the Saginaw native didn't know then was he soon would stumble upon an unconventional story — a national project focusing on eight families that brought the challenges of living undocumented in America to millions.
"Living Undocumented," a six-episode Netflix series launched in October. It follows the roller coaster of events that ensued after President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance policy took effect and how U.S. immigration policies have transformed over decades.
O'Grady said undocumented people often aren't humanized when policymakers take up immigration issues.
"It really wasn't about the politics that you hear about every day," said O'Grady, 35. "It was about bringing these stories that you never hear, front and center. Hopefully, people will have an open mind and realize these people could be their neighbors but also wouldn't know it."
The show follows families originally from Mexico and Central America, while others have roots in Africa, Honduras, Israel and Laos. Lawyers and elected officials speak on the sidelines of the documentary series, giving insights into policies and immigration. The arch of each family's story moves throughout the episodes.
The series spotlights Alejandra Juarez, a military spouse scheduled for deportation to Mexico with her 9-year-old daughter, Estela. Juarez surrenders to deportation, leaving her 16-year-old daughter behind with her husband, an ex-Marine who said he voted for Trump.
"I feel like I'm going to be torn apart from my sister and my dad ... and I want us to be together and stay in my house because I don't want to go to Mexico. I want to stay here," Estela said in tears during the episode "The World Is Watching."
O'Grady, a Michigan State University graduate, assisted as a producer in "Living Undocumented," alongside executive producers Selena Gomez, Aaron Saidman and Eli Holzman.
Often nail-biting scenes were caught in real-time while cameras followed the families for a year beginning in summer 2018. Producers stayed with them up to the doors of their ICE check-ins and to the airport gates during deportations.
"What was really difficult was trying to remember that in order to tell these stories objectively and in a way so the audience can decide for themselves, you have to have a certain amount of distance from those participating," Saidman said. "When it’s so emotional and the stakes for the participants are so high ... you do have these moments where you remember this is your job, but this is their lives."
The series has the makings of Hollywood-produced film: Suspense, drama, conflict and heartbreak. It wasn't, O'Grady said, exactly as he pitched the series. It was better.
"They handled delicate material in the best way possible," he said. "I shared footage that we shot and (the producers) immediately gravitated towards them. We developed the idea, Netflix came on board, and I went into an internet rabbit hole to find out more about undocumented people and families."
No families from Michigan are featured in the series, although the Ambassador Bridge makes an appearance.
"In Michigan, we have a huge and thriving immigrant population and one that's most targeted by immigration officials," O'Grady said. "There's a huge local impact and at one point, I was talking to an immigrant living at First Methodist Church. We wanted to show all sides of the immigration issue, but the opportunity to make this was not about left or right political agendas, but about these people who are caught up in this."
Among immigrants in Wayne County, nearly 18%, or 29,000, were undocumented in the county in 2017, according to a New American Economy study released in October. About 30% of the undocumented workforce is employed in the manufacturing industry, the study found.
The Netflix project began after O'Grady, whose Atlas Industries, his film and television production company based in Southfield, returned to Michigan to look for unusual stories to film. He stumbled upon a chef from Nigeria who was gaining fame but was struggling to live under the radar because he was undocumented. He was detained by ICE while traveling to a culinary event in Los Angeles.
"I took a pause for a minute because I had never talked to anyone who was undocumented, and ultimately, the story worked out nice. He ended up getting to stay and we documented that journey," he said.
He pitched a project about the chef to Saidman and other Netflix producers, who saw a bigger picture of not only telling that immigration story but about finding other undocumented families to illustrate their lives and struggles living in America.
Saidman said after watching O'Grady's footage of the chef, he wondered how many other stories there were.
"There are stories we don’t totally understand and are tearing at the fabric of our society that we don’t solely appreciate," Saidman said. "We realize that we’ve been talking about these immigrants and debating about what to do ... but what we haven’t seen are those stories told directly to us and explain what they’re going through, what they’re experiencing at the hands of our complicated immigration system."
In the first few episodes, viewers are introduced to Luis, whose pregnant girlfriend, Kenia, is detained and has to drive her son, Noah, to join his mother so the two could be deported to Honduras together. Luis risks being detained because he also is undocumented.
In "The World Is Watching" episode, cameras caught an ICE agent shoving Luis' U.S. lawyer, Andrea Martinez, to the ground as she tries to enter the building with Luis, who detained by ICE while holding Noah. Martinez finally enters the Kansas City ICE facility and moments later is wheeled out on a stretcher without shoes and a bloody knee.
Following the incident, Martinez says to the camera, "the fact that an ICE agent would assault me in front of cameras and 40 observers, knowing that I’m an attorney —imagine, just imagine, how immigrants are treated in private ICE detention facilities."
ICE officials did not respond to comment on the portrayal of undocumented immigrants and agent's actions in the series.
Meanwhile, the Israeli-born daughter of Ron and Karen, another undocumented couple, applies for DACA and a work permit. She says she was robbed after cameras stopped following her, but was unable to report the incident to police, another glimpse of the trouble undocumented people face.
"There's sort of loud, shocking moments, but I think there are a lot of other moments that are just as powerful," O'Grady said. "All of these people who participated are so incredibly brave and so emotionally vulnerable to let us into their world."