What first bonded the community organizer Alejandra Pablos and the filmmaker Maya Cueva was mutual admiration. It was 2018, and Pablos was being held in an ice detention center in Eloy, Arizona, her second stay there in the course of a complicated deportation case that started with a charge of drug-paraphernalia possession in 2011, when she was in her mid-twenties. Pablos was born in Mexico and does not have U.S. citizenship, but she grew up in California and, since she was a teen-ager, has lived in Arizona—the state in which she became an activist for reproductive justice and immigrants’ rights, working mainly with brown and Black people, and in which her deportation case is now being processed. Cueva, who had experience covering immigration, reported a public-radio story about Pablos. Pablos, in turn, saw dignity and nuance in Cueva’s journalism, which she described as “cultural-narrative-shifting work.” Cueva thought Pablos remarkable—someone who, with her “unapologetic way of living,” was calling out white supremacy and the criminalization of immigrants. Thus began the women’s three-year journey, in which Cueva has been following Pablos as she prepares for a hearing that will determine whether she can stay in the country where she has lived since she was an infant, a story chronicled in the documentary short “Ale Libre.”
Pablos challenges mainstream conversations about immigration, which rely on a problematic binary: “deserving” immigrants fleeing specific types of violence and judged to be model citizens in one category, and those deemed “disposable” in the other. Pablos is a respected community leader and a person with a record. She sees her case as an opportunity to confront the stunted state of the U.S. discourse on people with criminal convictions. Pablos points to rhetoric about Dreamers, for instance, that hinges on students having made lives in America through “no fault of their own.” (The implied price of their innocence is their parents’ guilt.) She also remembers hearing a promise by President Barack Obama to deport “felons, not families”—a slogan that reduces people to paper dolls. “I don’t fit into those binaries,” she said.
She’s not interested in well-meaning defenses against her deportation that would leave the story “watered down”; squeezing into the good-citizen mold is a prison of its own. “You’ve shown that you’re this perfect immigrant,” she said. “It’s like not being able to fully breathe, fully just live.” She draws parallels between immigrants and other methodically criminalized people in the U.S., such as Black Americans. “People just want to move and travel and find their best happy life, just like white people do all the time,” she told me. Pablos points out that, generally speaking, white Americans typically have an opportunity to move on from their mistakes, and to be anchored in their communities while enjoying open borders. A brush with the law doesn’t result in a fear of being cast out of their homes. She believes that everyone should have those same opportunities—and argues for a fundamentally different approach to immigration, one decoupled from the institutions of the criminal-justice system, which, she says, is steeped in white-supremacist ideology. “I challenge the state,” she said. “I experience all of these oppressions as an immigrant woman.”
Cueva’s film follows Pablos as she tirelessly tells her story. One of her goals is to avoid being expelled from her country. But another is to know more thoroughly, and to strengthen, her community—those “harmed by cages and police violence.” And she wants to help people release the shame that, for many, surrounds their experience of migration or incarceration. “I share my story so people share back. I see the depths of people—what they bring to this world just by existing,” she said. In the hopes that viewers of “Ale Libre” will engage in the sort of solidarity that defines Pablos’s organizing work, the women, with the support of activists opposing Pablos’s deportation, created a discussion guide to accompany the film. “With support and love and a true belief in self-determination, we can all be all the things we want,” Pablos said. That doesn’t happen when societies pit people against one another as either good citizens or bad. Pablos, woven into her community, has a plan: “What we’re saying is we want to transform all that.”