The documentary film 14: Dred Scott, Wong Kim Ark & Vanessa Lopez explores the question of who has the right to American citizenship, both historically and in the present day. The film, created by Graham Street Productions, the producers of Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth, traces this question using the stories of three families who were impacted by U.S. laws about citizenship–and who did something about it:
- Dred and Harriet Scott, whose lawsuit to be freed from slavery was defeated when the Supreme Court found they could not be citizens because of their race. This decision generated public outrage and ultimately led to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
- Wong Kim Ark, whose precedent-setting legal case confirmed that children born in the United States, even to parents not eligible to become citizens, were citizens themselves according to the 14th Amendment.
- Vanessa Lopez, who gained citizenship in the U.S. when she was born, even though her mother is undocumented.
Imagine 2050 spoke with filmmaker Anne Galisky prior to the film’s Washington, DC, premiere on June 11th. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you become interested in the 14th Amendment and the issue of birthright citizenship?
I have always been interested in the concept of citizenship, even from childhood, because my dad was undocumented. From the earliest age, I knew that the reason I was a citizen was because I was born in the U.S.
My dad’s family immigrated from the Ukraine, through Mexico, and finally to the U.S. in 1935, after a 7-year journey. They were fleeing Stalin’s rule. They knew they wanted to come to the U.S., but couldn’t come directly because of U.S. immigration laws, so they went to Mexico first. That’s where my dad was born. They tried to come legally, but were defrauded by an American lawyer and they decided to come anyway. My family crossed the border when my dad was young, so he was actually a DREAMer in the 1950s, decades before the DREAM Act was introduced.
My dad grew up in the U.S., and had just graduated from high school when he got a deportation notice in the mail. Immigration had looked up the whole family’s files because it was the height of the Red Scare. His family fled communism only to be accused of being communists. My dad didn’t know what to do, so he went straight to the Army and enlisted. They took him despite his immigration status, he survived the Korean War, and he was later able to become a legal U.S. resident.
I’m sure that race played a significant role in my family’s immigration story, and we benefited from being white. In fact, my aunt showed me her papers and they document it explicitly. She was married to a U.S. citizen, and had a U.S. citizen daughter, and the government recommended allowing her to naturalize because she was “of the white race.”
Our last film, Papers: Stories of Undocumented Youth, came out in 2009 as the DREAM movement was really taking off, and we continued to travel around the country and film the movement. Just a few weeks after the heartbreak when the Senate failed to pass the DREAM Act in 2010, the U.S. Congress once again introduced a bill to end birthright citizenship. So I thought about my next project and I thought, we need to look at birthright citizenship.
What did you set out to accomplish by making the film?
I wanted to shake people out of complacency. In pre-production, I had lots of conversations with national leaders, activists, historians, and others. So many people said, “We don’t need to worry about birthright citizenship ending.” But I was really not sure that we didn’t have to worry about it. And I wanted to look at a bigger, longer story of our constitutional rights and how they have changed over time.
The anti-immigrant movement is trying to put birthright citizenship in question, and I think that’s dangerous. I believe that it’s about moving the immigration conversation so far to the right that the middle ground shifts far to the right as well, and our movement’s advocacy goals are no longer viable. How far will they be able to shift the public perception of what constitutes a reasonable change to our immigration policies?
You were able to give this issue of birthright citizenship a personal narrative through interviews with Vanessa Lopez and descendants of Dred and Harriet Scott and Wong Kim Ark. How did you decide to use their stories for the film?
People are changed by stories. I didn’t just want to make an educational film that talked about legal cases but not people. I think interviewing a descendant in two of the cases makes their grandparents or great great grandparents more real. It’s really extraordinary that Lynne Jackson, a descendant of Dred and Harriet Scott, still lives in St. Louis where her great great grandparents were from. And she has citizenship because of what her great great grandparents did. Sandra Wong has citizenship because of what her grandfather, Wong Kim Ark, did. And the Lopez’s: Who can look at Vanessa Lopez and say she shouldn’t be a citizen?
These were everyday people doing what they needed to do for themselves and their families. Their cases ended up changing things for everybody, but they didn’t know that would happen at the beginning. They persevered when they did not have to. For the Scotts, I think it lasted over 11 years, through 5 trials, all while their family was in danger.
In my first conversation with Lynne Jackson, I asked her what she says to people who say the 14th Amendment is just for the descendants of freed slaves. She laughed and said, “The 14th Amendment is for everybody.”
Stories are interesting. Stories have drama. We’re impacted by individuals, so that’s why I wanted to the film to focus on them.
Clearly the organized anti-immigrant movement has played a big role in pushing us to this moment where birthright citizenship is subject to controversy, rather than simply being recognized as an important part of the Constitution. What’s the threat the anti-immigrant movement poses to Vanessa and children of immigrants in the future?
They are threatening to exclude people who were born in the U.S., threatening to marginalize them. Children born here are citizens explicitly based on the Constitution of the United States. How much more constitutional do you need to be?
The anti-immigrant movement is trying to take away power from immigrants and their children, erode their sense of belonging. When you have a sense of belonging, you are powerful. And when you’re marginalized, you don’t participate.
We tried to get interviews with anti-immigrant politicians like Rep. Steve King (R-IA). They declined, but their message is easily available. So we included anti-immigrant tweets and video clips of people from the anti-immigrant movement because sometimes people don’t believe that type of hate exists.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
We can’t be complacent. The rights we have need to be defended, not taken for granted. And everyday people can change the world.
A note from Graham Street Productions:
There are still a few seats available for the June 11 Washington, DC premiere. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. To host a “14” screening or premiere event, go to: http://14themovie.com/. To find out about a “14” screening near you, follow @14themovie on Twitter and 14themovie on Facebook.