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How Priscilla González Sainz documented the inner lives of first-generation immigration lawyers

A movie poster for "Status Pending." features Rudy, one of attorney Araceli Guerrero's clients.
A movie poster for “Status Pending.” features Rudy, one of attorney Araceli Guerrero’s clients.
(Courtesy of Priscilla González Sainz)

Araceli Guerrero finishes a full day’s work in her Santa Ana law office. After spending some time with her three children and putting them to bed, she sets up a home office in her dining room area. The work continues.

She’s an immigration lawyer specializing in lawful permanent residency and naturalization — an almost Sisyphean task during the Trump administration. She’s also the inspiration for the short film documentary “Status Pending,” directed by her youngest sister Priscilla González Sainz.

After Sainz graduated from Stanford University, she worked for Guerrero in the solo practice law office.

“I saw how difficult the whole situation was for her in terms of keeping up with all the constant changes,” Sainz said.“ I could connect what I was seeing in the news with how it was coming to fruition in the work that she does with her clients, how she was constantly stressed and brought work home with her.”

The film follows the lives of five immigration lawyers who met working at a high-intensity law firm in Los Angeles. Each opened their own solo practices across Southern California and created an informal support group. Guerrero, Alma Puente, Elizabeth Uribe, Gladdys Uribe and Jose Osorio are in constant communication with each other, whether it’s grabbing a coffee or a group text chain. The support group, composed of first-generation Mexican Americans, help each other figure out how the latest immigration policies (or tweets from the president) will affect their clients and provide emotional support for the cases that keep them up at night.

Left, Araceli Guerrero, Alma Puente, Gladdys Uribe, Elizabeth Uribe and Jose Osorio.
“Status Pending” follows five immigration lawyers. Left, Araceli Guerrero, Alma Puente, Gladdys Uribe, Elizabeth Uribe and Jose Osorio.
(Courtesy of Priscilla González Sainz)

“I will never get used to seeing families torn apart,” Puente texts the group at one point in the film. She had sent the text at the end of a hard work day where she met with Claudia, a wife and mother of two whose husband was taken into custody. Puente started the process of connecting Claudia with non-government funded housing resources and then clocked out of the office to take her own kids to their baseball game.

The documentary goes back and forth between law offices where families are legally fighting to stay together and the lawyers’ own families. Feeling burnt out, the hanging existential question for the lawyers becomes: How long can they continue in this line of work?

The film made the rounds through this years’ festivals — AFI Fest, Double Exposure Film Festival, Marina del Rey Film Festival and OC Film Fiesta. On Oct. 22 through Nov. 3, the documentary is available for online viewing through NBC’s Meet the Press. Starting on Oct. 25, it will also be available online and broadcast globally through the rest of the month on Al Jazeera English.

In this condensed and edited conversation, Sainz talks about what it’s like working with family, the making of the documentary and pressures unique to first-generation kids.

How did the idea for this film come about?

At some point, I learned that Araceli was part of this lawyer support group because she was always texting them. As a joke, they call the group the minions or the tribe because they all started at the same law firm. I asked her, “Do you think that they might be up for making a film about this group?” She said that I could ask them, and they were all onboard immediately. She was the last one to agree.

I felt that this was a side of the story that I hadn’t really seen portrayed in a lot of the work that documentarians are doing on immigration. Before this film I had made a short film called “Room 140” about the day that detainees are released from detention centers. “Status Pending” was another side of this bigger, huge conversation about immigration.

Why do you think your sister, Araceli, was the last to say yes to participating in the documentary?

Both of my sisters have always been really supportive, but Araceli knows more about what I do in the film industry. When she was at law school at BYU in Utah and I was in high school, I would intentionally visit her in January so she could take me to Sundance and drop me off and go to law school and then pick me up. Part of it was knowing a lot about what it takes to make a documentary, but I think the other part of it was also being so busy and stressed, knowing that it would take some time.

Maybe being concerned about privacy and what her clients would think. It was also a question of whether she wanted to be on camera. The other four have spent more time on camera, particularly being on the news. This was very different for her. I really appreciate that she came around to it. And I know the only reason probably is because she supports me and loves me. Otherwise, I’m not sure she would have done it.

Is there a difference for you when documenting a family member versus the other four lawyers?

Because she’s my older sister, I’ve always seen her as a bit of an authority. So when I’m on set trying to direct, it’s almost like butting heads when I was shooting at her office. I say that jokingly.

What I’ve learned is that if people agree to be in a documentary usually it’s because they have a lot of faith in that filmmaker. It’s so much trust and so much responsibility to take someone’s story and put it together in a film or any sort of artistic piece because there’s so much that’s going to be left out.

It’s a little bit harder to establish a relationship where you want them to see you as a filmmaker. When it’s a family member, they know you as you whether it’s the little sister or the daughter or the tía. Breaking through that barrier in some cases can be extremely fruitful because you have all that history and context and it takes a camera for you to get that out of that person. Making personal documentaries is so much about the filmmaker and about the story when you’re working with family. In this case, I tried to keep myself out of the film.

Araceli Guerrero, an immigration lawyer based in Santa Ana, works out of her dining room area.
Araceli Guerrero, an immigration lawyer based in Santa Ana, works out of her dining room area.
(Courtesy of Priscilla González Sainz)

In your director’s statement, you used the word activist to describe the lawyers. What went into the thinking of using that specific word?

When I think about activists, I think about people who make choices in their daily lives for the better of others. I feel like they’re activists because their job is to help people. The fact that these individuals have devoted their life to uphold the law that they believe is the best for people, makes them activists.

I also know personally that they really care about their community. All of them do volunteer work and public service. My sister does a lot of pro bono work in Santa Ana. They all do. They really care about their communities, not just in their professional lives but in their personal lives. Something that drives my work is featuring relatable “normal people” who do little things or big things that make a difference.

How did you decide which clients to follow?

I definitely interviewed more clients than were in the film. A big part of that was I had to keep it to certain lengths because of my short film grant. Afterwards I felt like this could have been a longer film. Maybe I’ll make a follow-up piece because there’s so many people and so many stories. I tried to include cases that I felt the lawyers had a lot of either mixed feelings about or were just really personally affected. Also, it had to do with access and which people were willing to be on camera.

In Alma’s case, I know that what happened with Claudia’s husband really affected her for a while. It still does. That he was taken into custody in front of her a little bit before we started filming and the weight that she felt of trying to help this woman who was left alone with two daughters. A big part of what a lot of them feel is guilt when something goes wrong. That’s where the support group comes in because they’ll remind each other that they’re doing the best they can at all times.

Rudy (one of Araceli’s clients) is featured in the first scene and at the end of the film. He’s also on the poster. Tell me about why that image was selected for the poster.

It’s the strongest image I felt we had in the film because Rudy represents the work of all five lawyers. He represents why they do what they do. Some of them said this when they saw the film. It’s such a difficult landscape for them, and it probably will be for some time. It’s a moment of hope, and I wanted to end on a high note.

Also, Rudy is just such a compelling character. I wanted to make his own film. He’s someone who’s just so aware of the mistakes he’s made. He’s someone who feels like he doesn’t deserve [citizenship] and then comes to accept that he does.

Have you heard feedback about the documentary from the people featured in it?

It’s always concerning to show the documentary to people, especially because you spent a lot of time with them and in the end there’s only a little bit of that footage, especially in a short film. I went to Rudy’s house and they were very emotional. They really loved it. I love when a film can help someone open up about something. To me it sounded like it was a way for Rudy’s son to tell his dad, “I know you made mistakes, but I’m really proud of you.” And that was such an incredible moment.

Some of them haven’t seen the film. I don’t think Claudia has seen the film. It’s just too difficult, and she’s still having a really tough time because her family is still not together. Alma is still working with them. I think sometimes the act of telling your story is a cathartic process, and sometimes that’s all that they want to be involved with.

Alma Puente talks to Claudia, a wife and mother of two whose husband was taken into custody.
(Courtesy of Priscilla González Sainz)

There was so much breaking news about immigration and detention within the timeframe of filming, and the text messages brought that element into the documentary. How did you decide which text messages to include?

That was such a grueling process. It could have been an entire film based on the text messages. Fortunately, I worked really closely with my producer Laura Reich and editor Sarah Garrahan during that process of making these tough decisions because we knew it couldn’t be a lecture, it couldn’t be a history lesson. It ended up coming down to what text messages related most to what was happening on screen at that time. The text messages were also edited and then reviewed by the lawyers. They were shortened and some legal jargon was replaced.

There was this emotional scene with Araceli towards the end where she talks about how challenging it is to keep up with the new immigration policies and how she’ll keep doing this type of work as long as it feels right. Do you remember the question that was asked to her at that moment?

That day in itself was a pretty intense shoot day, and I haven’t talked about it to anybody. I had been filming with most of the four, and I didn’t actually have a lot of footage with Araceli because she was busy or she couldn’t let me come in. I had been talking to her for a while to try to get her to let me just come into the office and watch her work.

I could tell she was in a funk. I knew there was all this tension and stress, but how do you get an introvert, a very private person to tell you what is going on? As a director, I wasn’t really getting anything out of her.

She told me it was time to go. I had wrapped up, and she just started talking to me about her day. I didn’t really ask her a question. I had set the camera down and luckily it was on, but I really only got the end of that. It was a really rough day, and there’s so many of those days that internally it’s a struggle for her about whether she wants to keep doing this anymore. If the system keeps fighting against everything you believe in, at what point do you break? They all still struggle with it, but they decide to keep going and take it a day at a time.

Part of what was compelling about the film was the lawyers questioning whether they were going to keep working in their fields or not. It happens to many people in various careers, but there are specific pressures about being first generation that play into that thought process too.

Do you think that it’s about our feeling of responsibility towards others or our feeling that we need to be successful in order to make our parents’ struggle worth it?

Both.

I agree. When you feel like you’re not succeeding, it’s so much heavier because it’s not just you. It’s your whole history — everything your parents did, the life your grandparents had, the hopes and dreams. And when you feel like you’re not succeeding, you don’t feel like you’re doing that justice. That definitely plays a big part into what goes on for them, and a lot of us who are first generation who carry that extra bit of weight.

What’s the latest update on all five lawyers? Are they still practicing?

It was a question at the end of the film about whether they were going to continue. All five are still practicing and active in their own law firms. In speaking to my sister, I know that she still struggles with a lot of this and especially how complicated everything got because of COVID. Araceli has been slowly going back to work with during the pandemic. And that’s the same for everybody. Elizabeth Uribe was featured in the L.A. Times. Alma Puente is running for City Council for El Monte.

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