LOS ANGELES — Under a string of golden street lights, the directions roll off Jorge Xolalpa’s tongue interchangeably in English and Spanish as he paces the sidewalk with a cameraman by his side.
The actors don’t miss a beat, and crewmembers prop lighting on top of a nearby dumpster to give the scene the glow the 33-year-old award-winning Mexican-born filmmaker has etched in his mind. Moments like these are precious to Xolalpa, whose eyes dart with excitement as he describes his love of film.
Despite his rising fame, Xolalpa, like hundreds of thousands of others, is mired in a years-long battle over whether he can have legal working papers in the United States. Should the courts end the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, he said he’ll find a way to make a living and won’t stop making movies. But, he said, he would reel from the loss of stability in the country where he grew up and has made his home.
“The biggest thing I would lose would be hope,” he said.
For many of the 600,000 immigrants in this position, it isn’t easy to remain hopeful. A U.S. appeals court recently left the program in limbo by returning a hotly contested case about it to a lower court for review. As the country heads into midterm elections that could put Republicans in control of Congress, that decision has ramped up pressure on Democrats to pass legislation to protect these immigrants.
While the Obama administration program has brought educational opportunities, job prospects and benefits such as driver’s licenses and insurance for the immigrants, long-term security has proven elusive. Texas and other states sued over DACA four years ago, and prospects worsened when U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen last year ruled that the program was illegal, allowing it to continue for those already participating but barring new applicants.
Immigrant advocates appealed and the Biden administration went through a new rule-making process aimed at putting the program on more solid ground. This month, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals returned the case to Hanen for review of the new rules; the judge ordered attorneys to brief him on the regulations but didn’t set a timetable for a decision. The case is widely expected to end up before the Supreme Court.
With uncertainty ahead, Biden and his party will face increasing urgency to devise a more lasting DACA fix during the final weeks of the session before the New Year.
DACA was created in 2012 to shield from deportation young immigrants who were born abroad and lacked legal immigration status but who were raised and educated in the United States. Shortly after his election on a largely anti-immigrant platform, President Donald Trump moved to end the program, but the U.S. Supreme Court found he didn’t do so properly and kept DACA intact.
The program was initially open to immigrants between 15 and 30 years old who were attending or had graduated from high school and who didn’t have a felony criminal record. Many original applicants were college students and are now working professionals. Some are parents and even grandparents.
Xolalpa was nine in 1998 when his mother collected him from school in Mexico and took him to catch an airplane bound for Los Angeles. He said his mother was escaping his abusive father, and that she sold toys and T-shirts in Los Angeles’ densely packed downtown streets to make ends meet.
Xolalpa, who came on a travel visa that expired when he was still a child, said he was afraid he’d get stuck in a rut if he took a similar job. So after finishing high school in a Los Angeles suburb, he filed paperwork to become an independent contractor and got work as a property manager, started a small house-cleaning business and went to college.
He wanted to go to law school and perhaps return to Mexico to run for political office, knowing he couldn’t do so in the United States. But after seeing the movie “Black Swan,” Xolalpa said something in him clicked and he knew he wanted to make film.
Xolalpa said he didn’t initially apply for DACA, fearing his family could be deported if he handed his personal information to immigration authorities. He waited about two years before he applied. He said he then had more freedom to apply for jobs, and these came with benefits: health insurance, a (401) k) plan, and a feeling, for the first time, that he was part of the property management company where he worked.
'They're playing with my life'
But it didn’t lift all the limitations, especially on his work in film. Xolalpa said he has faced challenges getting permission to travel overseas, which can be done under the program but requires additional paperwork and takes time. He said he missed out on opportunities to attend overseas film festivals and work on a streaming production in Mexico, and doesn’t want that to be his lot forever.
“They’re playing with my life, and it’s just not OK,” he said.
Xolalpa said he made seven films in seven years and has no plans to stop. He started out with an iPhone and $100 budget and now has his own production company, Mighty Aphrodite Pictures, focused on female-driven films. Last year, his film “Your Iron Lady,” which tells his mother’s story, was considered for a Golden Globe nomination after winning awards at a number of film festivals.
His latest film, “Union Station,” is expected out next year, and he has applied to renew his participation in DACA after the federal judge ruled it could continue for now.
Without a solution to his immigration situation in the next two years, though, Xolalpa said he might head overseas to keep making films. He said he loves this country and the opportunities it has given him, but that the chronic instability is taking its toll, leaving him with a restless mind after late nights making movies in a Los Angeles neighborhood with views of the sprawling port just blocks away.
“I don’t like the word ‘Dreamer,’” he said of the term often used to describe participants in the program, which was coined in an earlier legislative proposal to fix the group’s immigration woes. “We’re makers.”
“We’re not victims. We’re heroes,” he said. “We’re making this nation.”