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Film '9500 Liberty' offers raw look at illegal immigration

Filmmaker Annabel Park hspace=4
Filmmaker Annabel Park hspace=4

The topic of illegal immigration stirs strong opinions. From opposing sides of the debate, there are emotional reactions and well-reasoned arguments and concerns. And yes, you can throw some racism in there as well. These reactions have certainly played out in the Charlotte area, but nothing like a particularly intense debate that occurred two years ago in Northern Virginia's Prince William County. The documentary film 9500 Liberty captures this debate. "This country is being invaded no less than if hordes of armed people came across its borders. This invasion is not armed, but they've got weapons. The weapons they use are their anchor-babies," one Prince William County resident says in the film. Filmmakers Annabel Park and Eric Byler posted their raw footage on YouTube as they shot the film so that the public could watch the debate unfold. Now, the finished film is making its way to the Carolinas. It shows Sunday at the Charlotte Film Festival at Queens University. WFAE Morning Edition host Scott Graf speaks to Park about the film and what other communities can learn from it. GRAF: First, give us the basics of what happened in Northern Virginia. PARK: In July 2007, Prince William County government passed a local ordinance that was considered the harshest local ordinance cracking down on illegal immigration. Basically what the law did was to mandate police officers to check immigration status of anyone they had probable cause to believe was illegal, and it ended up really dividing people in the county. Within two months, they ended up removing the probable cause mandate. So they do check immigration status but only after arrest. And when we started reading about this controversy in the summer of 2007, we just couldn't believe what was happening. When you just live in the county, it feels like a very welcoming place, so we were really surprised that this was happening. And then as we just started looking around, there was fighting on the streets. There was one intersection in particular - someone had put up a really large sign on a wall that basically denounced the resolution, and it said something like, "Stop your racism against Hispanics, Prince William County." And at that corner, people would drive by and hurl racial insults at people. GRAF: I want to play some the raw footage that you posted. This actually comes from the intersection that you mentioned, the address 9500 Liberty, and it's one exchange where a man interrupts as you're in the middle of filming. Man: "I went to Lowe's today and the cashier was speaking Spanish. I particularly don't enjoy speaking Spanish in my country.If you go to school and study and don't get into one of those gangs and you go to college, then I applaud you." Boy in group: "What else am I going to do?" Park (in documentary): "They are here legally, okay? And they are American citizens, they speak English, their parents work very hard; can you give them a chance?" GRAF: Do you remember what that man said? PARK: He basically was confronting this group, including myself - I think he saw me, I'm Korean-American, I think he saw me as being foreign - and he wanted to know why the people weren't integrating. I think that's really basically at the heart of his complaint. When he says, 'Learn how to speak English,' he just means, 'You guys have to learn to become American.' I think that a lot of people, when they listen to him, just see him as a racist, but I have a lot of compassion for him because I think he's someone who is kind of going through a bit of an identity crisis. He feels really displaced in his own neighborhood; he doesn't recognize his neighbors, he doesn't understand what they're saying, and he's been living here for many decades. So I don't think that his complaint should be dismissed, but I think there are other ways of addressing his complaint, which is totally legitimate. Instead of getting angry and screaming at people to leave, I think we have to figure out how to integrate people. GRAF: The boy who responded in that exchange by saying, 'What do you expect me to do?' spoke to you a few days later. Here's some of what he had to say: Boy: "He just didn't like us. It felt like he was just trying to say, 'Get out of this country,' and I didn't really feel right. I had to speak up for everybody, not just for my family. He wanted us to go back to where we came from and I was just trying to tell him that I wanted to stay hereI was born in New York." GRAF: Annabel, talk about the role that these children of Latino immigrants, both legal and illegal, have in their families. PARK: Well, in one critical scene there's a very long board meeting in which hundreds of people came to speak up on this immigration resolution, and many Latino immigrants came and their children ended up speaking for their parents. There was a lot of burden placed on these children to speak up for their parents and really help them, in general, to integrate. This is something that I went through, as well, when I moved here as a 9-year-old from South Korea. I remember having to call the phone company as a 12-year-old to negotiate fees for my parents, things like that, so I think that was something I was very sensitive to. I think I felt a lot of sympathy for both sides of the debate. I could understand the native-born Americans who felt invaded and I also understood where the new immigrants were coming from. Many of the undocumented workers are in America because they feel like they have no other option for survival. GRAF: Annabel, why do you think this a film that people in places like Charlotte would want to watch? PARK: I do think the immigration issue, perhaps more than any other political issue of our time, really is at the heart of who we are as a country. We are a nation of immigrants and how we deal with immigrants is a very important part of our future and our understanding of ourselves. GRAF: Annabel Park, co-director of the film 9500 Liberty, thank you very much for your time. PARK: Thank you. GRAF: And you can see 9500 Liberty on Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. as part of the Charlotte Film Festival at Queens University.