The Story Behind Paper Children: A Conversation With the Director

Promotional image for the documentary, Paper Children. 

2020 has been relentless in demanding our attention. Wildfires, hurricanes, elections, social justice movements and a global pandemic have consumed our newsfeeds and our empathy. Amid all of this, there has been an issue that has slowly burned for years, and has now erupted into a major humanitarian crisis. And it’s happening in our country. I’m talking, of course, about the treatment of children and families arriving at our southern border.

Since the start of the pandemic alone, the administration has expelled nearly 9,000 unaccompanied children who were seeking safety in the U.S. Many are being held in hotel rooms without proper oversight before being deported. Those who aren’t deported are left to navigate a complex and confusing system to fight for their asylum.

We cannot ignore this issue. That’s why I spoke with Alexandra Codina, the director and producer of Paper Children, a new YouTube Originals documentary that highlights one family’s journey to asylum once they’ve arrived in the U.S. As the daughter of an immigrant from El Salvador myself, the film felt intimate and urgent, and I wanted to learn more about how it came to be.

Here are some highlights from our conversation.

Sarah: What prompted you to make this film?

Alexandra: In 2014, I read the first of a series of reports on children fleeing Central America. We had an enormous surge of children arriving at our border at that time. What really struck me was just how dire the situation had become for children and youths. I remember reading specific stories of children, and the way they were targeted by the gangs and what ultimately prompted them to flee. 

But I was equally shocked by their treatment once they arrived in the U.S. The zero-tolerance policy, as it is now, is a whole other level of inhumane cruelty. But the idea of having people, particularly children, in deplorable conditions at the border, and the idea that families are separated in so many different forms on either side of the border – those things were happening then too [in 2014]. 

When I started learning about all this I had a newborn and a toddler, which made it much more personal. As a mother, I was imagining my children stuck in that level of violence and what I would do to keep them safe. And my father arrived as an unaccompanied child from Cuba in the sixties, so once I learned about the kids then I started connecting the fact that my father had undergone his own refugee story.

Sarah:  One of the most striking moments [in the documentary] for me, is when you see this little boy [Jan] talking about his horrific journey to the U.S. But when the interviewer asked what the worst part of his experience was, he said the “ICE box” in the detention center. And that was just so surprising to me. You would think once you cross the border then you’re safe, right? And it wasn’t the case for them. It’s so heartbreaking. 

Alexandra: Everyone always imagines that the journey would be the most traumatic piece, so it struck me as well that the border detention was so much more traumatic for Jan. We didn’t dwell on the journey simply because the film was meant to allow you to experience things as they were unfolding.

Also, I feel like that journey is what the media hyper-focuses on. It’s terrifying. They see signs of gang activity and they know that they could be a target at any point, especially the girls, unfortunately. But many of them expected those terrors, whereas none of them seemed to expect the treatment they received when they got to the U.S.

When I listened to the kids (I interviewed many before filming with this one family), all of them said the same thing. None of them were trying to cheat the system. They didn’t know what asylum was, they just had the sense that if they got to the U.S. they would be protected.

All the children, especially the younger ones, would talk about seeing Mommy at the border. Like they were going to get the U. S. and we would see “Mama.” And it really struck me because the ones who have a parent here…they were just desperate to be reunited and to feel safe. I think that psychologically kept them going on the journey.

Sarah: I mean, rip my heart out – they just want their moms!

Alexandra: It’s chilling, yeah.

Sarah: What message do you want people to take away from this documentary? What do you want them to act upon or feel after watching this?

Alexandra: Well I want for the conversation to shift away from a political one. I think that because immigration has become so highly politicized and polarizing, we’re not able to have the level of nuanced conversation that we need in order to deal with this very complex issue. Especially when it comes to children and families. 

When people are stripped down to jargon or statistics, it becomes much easier to enact highly damaging policy. Even the fact that within the system, you’re still called an “alien”, which is crazy for any human. Even the kids, they have their UAC number, which stands for “unaccompanied alien child”.

For me, the main takeaway would be for people to put their political opinions aside for a moment and really live the human experience. Consider why parents would leave their children, why children would undergo such a treacherous journey, and why they’re here on our doorstep. 

Sarah: I almost feel like it’s one of those unique situations where the more horrific it gets and the more the numbers continue to rise, then it almost feels intangible. Your brain can’t process that many children, it can’t process what it all means. So it’s this Catch-22 where the worse it gets, the harder it is to understand it or fix it.  

What surprised you the most while making this film?

Alexandra: Well, it doesn’t surprise me anymore. But when I first started the project – again it’s a big part of what inspired me to make a film – I couldn’t believe the way our system treats these children. The deeper you go with this issue, the more you realize how dire things are for a lot of these kids and families. 

I knew that the courts were really subjective. We tried not make the film technical because you lose audiences if you started getting into the technicality. But what actually happened is that Fernando [the oldest brother] had his interview first. When Jan [the youngest brother] went to have his interview, Jan got so emotional. We’re not sure if it’s just because of trauma, or if he was nervous because he was little, or if he didn’t remember all the details. Back in Honduras, Fernando really made an effort to shield him and the other younger brother from what was happening. So Jan, for all the reasons above, was crying and would not answer questions in his asylum interview. So they asked for Fernando’s permission and used the affidavit that Fernando had written and signed himself. They approved Jan but denied Fernando based on the same affidavit.

Sarah: After making this, after going through this with the family, are you still hopeful? Are you hopeful that things will change or that we will be able to find a solution to this?

Alexandra: Yes. I’m hopeful. I think that if we don’t maintain hope, we’re all just going to give up and that’s not the answer. I think that those of us involved in social justice work, either as storytellers or advocates, we do the work because we believe that it will somehow make a difference. 

Sarah: Well, I’m so grateful for the documentary and I’m also grateful to speak with you! I cannot wait to speak with the family.

Alexandra: Thank you!

Watch Paper Children >>

Learn more about how you can help children at the border today >>


Editor’s note: Sarah plans on speaking with the family featured in Paper Children, and that conversation recap will be linked here once it is available.

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Alexandra Codina is the director and producer of Paper Children. Her debut film, Monica & David, won Tribeca Film Festival’s Jury Award, was nominated for an Emmy Award, premiered on HBO, and broadcast in 33 countries.  Ali’s work has been supported by Knight Foundation, The Fledgling Fund, The Perspective Fund, Sundance Knight Fellowship, South Florida Arts Consortium & Tribeca All Access. 

Sarah Poetzschke is the web and digital manager for Save the Children Action Network. She is passionate about using digital tools and strategy to build a network of advocates for kids.