'Expanding Sanctuary' is a success story. And a record of how immigrants changed policy in Philadelphia - Generocity Philly

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Jul. 29, 2019 12:00 pm

‘Expanding Sanctuary’ is a success story. And a record of how immigrants changed policy in Philadelphia

Filmmaker Kristal Sotomayor: "I think that this offers a different perspective on immigration ... Immigrants are not helpless. They are incredibly strong people.”

Minutes after exchanging vows with her new husband, Linda Hernández joined the June 2018 occupation of City Hall urging the end of the PARS contract.

(Still from the Expanding Sanctuary film)

Kristal Sotomayor had no idea what she was walking into when she was invited to one of Juntos‘ town hall meetings. For a while, she had wanted to do a film about the South Philadelphia Latinx nonprofit.

Sotomayor, a recent graduate of Bryn Mawr College admired the work that Juntos has been doing. She had just received a scholarship from Scribe Video Center’s Film Scholar Program, which allowed her to take the necessary courses to plan and produce a documentary.

“I just started contacting Juntos and kept coming back being very honest with them about wanting to make a film and document the work that they do until they finally let me in,” Sotomayor said. “It was several months of me communicating with them, meeting with them, talking, gaining their trust and creating this partnership.”

Still from the film “Expanding Sanctuary.” (Courtesy photo)

At the meeting, the focus centered on Juntos’ campaign to end the sharing of the police database, known as PARS with Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE). Sotomayor had no idea yet of where the film was going to go; she just knew who she wanted to work with at Juntos and why.

The daughter of Latinx immigrants, Sotomayor said that immigrants’ rights are so important and that there are just not enough stories that collaborate with people that are directly affected.

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“I mostly knew that I wanted to work with them and then from there it was a lot of me trying to form a relationship with them and gaining their trust and input,” Sotomayor said. “I went to the first meeting and they were talking about the PARS contract and I was like, that’s the story. It’s going to be the whole campaign. It was a little bit of faith.”

Last July, the Philadelphia’s city government announced that it would not renew its PARS agreement with ICE.

The film follows Juntos Executive Director Erika Almirón, Communications Manager Miguel Andrade, and Community Organizer Marissa Piña Rodriguez. The film also highlights community members Linda Hernández and her daughter, Ashley, and marks their evolution as community leaders.

From day one of working on the film, Sotomayor made sure that her intentions were clear and that she was very receptive to feedback — even allowing input on the film’s feature title, Expanding Sanctuary. Sotomayor wanted Juntos and community members to be a part of upcoming documentary in more ways than one.

“I want them to tell me what they don’t like,” Sotomayor said. “From the get-go, I told them that they would have the first cut of the film.”

At the community meetings that followed, Sotomayor would introduce herself and explained the documentary that she planned to make. She gave out her business card, her phone number urging those who would be participating in the film to reach out to her with any concerns.

Being Latina, having similar experiences and being able to speak Spanish was a plus while working on the film, Sotomayor said. Expanding Sanctuary is a perfect example of a community that is ignored and misrepresented alike coming together, and winning.

“Often time the people who are telling stories about our communities are privileged or don’t know about our community or don’t have any sense about what’s happening in our community,” Sotomayor said. “But I look like them. I share a lot of the same experiences, so I think that really helped a lot. And I was also very open about my own privilege.”

Sotomayor was also very clear that the film would not be a sad story. She didn’t want any tears on camera and luckily, she said,  the story was not just happy but empowering as well.

Still from the film “Expanding Sanctuary.” (Courtesy photo)

“I think right now a lot of what’s happening, is a lot of demonizing of immigrants. It’s like one side is saying that immigrants are ‘illegal’ and that they shouldn’t be here and the other side is seeing these really sad portrayals of immigrants and thinking, ‘oh my God they must have a terrible life,’”  she said.

“This film is a success story, it’s about an immigrant community that is being heavily targeted right now, that is able to organize to make political changes, policy changes that will help them,” she said. “That isn’t often seen.”

“I think that this offers a different perspective on immigration because now it’s just sadness and tragedy with people being like, ‘oh they’re helpless,'” Sotomayor said. “Immigrants are not helpless. They are incredibly strong people.”

A Seed & Spark crowdfunding campaign for the film runs through August 14. The goal, according to Sotomayor, is to complete the postproduction work on the film by the one year anniversary of Philadelphia’s official end to the PARS contact.

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