Documentary on the Undocumented

Check out Undocumented Election Night at n+1 magazine.

Questions of documentation in American politics resound most clearly in debates about immigration. To call someone documented means they have a certain legal status that recognizes their right to live in the United States. Depending on the type of documentation, they may even have the legal right to work or study here. By contrast, to call someone undocumented means they do not enjoy such a legal status. The specific documents in question are the immigration visa or the green card. Like a passport, driver’s license, marriage license or any number of other official papers, these documents carry the full authority of the state. They grant privileges by bearing the markers of officialdom. As Lisa Gitelman explains in the preface of Paper Knowledge, those markers go a long way toward performing the dominion of documentation. That dominion appears decorously in the form of insignia, but documents also incorporate their holders in systems of government administration, which lets state offices keep track of their activities. The most frequently debated of those systems, of course, are the ones dedicated to taxation, but we also hear about systems of policing and immigration services. To be documented is to be part of many different systems of administrative control and supervision.

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One system immigrants do not participate in—whether documented or not—is the electoral system. For that, one must go through the process of naturalization to become a citizen. Millions of immigrants will watch as the election results come in this evening, knowing that the final tally will have a profound impact on their status in this country. While they cannot vote, many of those folks do participate in the democratic process in various other ways. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, for instance, took the presidential elections as an opportunity to document the voices of undocumented immigrants as they reflect on their experience during the campaign season and anticipate the results. In her photo essay, Undocumented Election Night, she notes that the outcome of the elections could determine whether or not she and her family can live together. With a sense of terror, she asked undocumented friends (and friends of friends) to share photos of the screens they will watch tonight.

The resulting project documents both the high stakes of the political process at the same time it illustrates the banality of how people experience it. Political engagement is necessarily mediated in our representational democracy, as the Electoral College makes clear. But we also rely on mass media to understand and participate in this national event—we seek access to the idea of a nation through our individual screens. For people who cannot vote, however, another layer of mediation exists. As Villavicencio’s college friend put it, “For people like us, everything hinges on our neighbors’ votes.” State documents can produce disenfranchisement, so they can tell us a lot about the status of our political system, voter rights, efficacy, and demographics. However, official documentation does not speak articulately about the social experience of marginalization. Luckily, documentary projects like Undocumented Election Night do.

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