Interview with Hendel Leiva and Jason Giannetti

(Immigration lawyer Jason Giannetti (left) and flimmaker and immigration activist Hendel Leiva (right).)

[Editor’s Note: Immigration lawyer Jason Giannetti and filmmaker and immigration activist Hendel Leiva spoke to the The Gatepost before their presentation on Thursday, Feb. 22.]

What motivated you to discuss immigration reform professionally?

Giannetti: I have a lot of clients that require DACA, and under Obama, that was a great boon for them. Under the new administration, I got asked by a number of organizations, colleges, universities, nonprofits … to talk about what’s happening, because there was a lot of misinformation, confusion and fear. This is maybe the fifth or sixth organization I’ve spoken at in the last four or five months.

Leiva: So, I’ve been an immigration activist for the past five years, right out of graduate school. My main motivation for learning about immigration was the classes I took at the University of Albany – learning about the patterns of migration and the national immigration conversation. Also, because when I was in high school, I was involved in a bias incident against the day laborers in my community, where we drove by in a car yelling racial stuff at them. And so, it’s my personal responsibility to fight for, and protect, immigrants from other people like me targeting them, especially during such a toxic moment in our nation’s discourse on immigration.

During your presentation in the Forum, a clip from your documentary, “From One Mistake,” will be shown. Can you discuss what you wanted to portray when making the film?

Leiva: What I wanted to portray was that in a time that is so divided, we all need to take personal responsibility. Not everybody is going to use their personal story for advocacy, but we need to start somewhere to have a full conversation around immigration, because we are so divided between the left and the right. Ultimately, it falls back down on us to envision what kind of America we want to see. Do we want to see an America where people are driving by and yelling “build a wall” or “get out of our country” or “Trump, Trump, Trump” to people who aren’t even doing anything to them? It’s about personal responsibility in this moment of American politics. 

Can you explain how your profession as an immigration lawyer has influenced your perspective on the DACA program?

Giannetti: I get to see it from the inside out in two different ways. In one way, I see and have to keep track of what is going on with the law and that is fluctuating pretty frequently. And another way is through these personal stories these people come to me with. So, I see who they are. Who their families are. What their concerns are. I get, on a daily basis, a snapshot of what we are going to see in the film we are going to watch today.

Given what is going on in the government, why do you think conversations like the one you are going to have in the Forum tonight are so vital?

Giannetti: I think they are vital because knowledge is power on one hand. It’s important to know what the law is. It’s important to know what is happening. It’s not only vital we have these conversations, but we are seeing these conversations pop up more and more organically. Organizations like Framingham State are doing these, and I feel it is interconnected with a lot of things that are happening. I think that the #MeToo movement, Colin Kaepernick, the whole protest is all connected. … Another way to look at it is through the lens of psychology. There’s a term called horizontal violence where somebody who’s been abused by somebody in power, that person who is the abuser can’t be touched by the person who is abused. So, the abuser will take out violence horizontally. Recently, I heard somebody adapt this and call it horizontal action, so that when the top person is creating these kind of oppressive situations, we might not be able to individually, or even in small groups, take that top person out, but we can act in a horizontal way and get our peers to get energized and do things.

Leiva: I think we are so divided because there are no real stories being distributed from the progressive left, which is the part that I’m from. Tonight, you are going to hear a real, authentic, heart-wrenching story of the son of an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, the son of a woman who had to find her way through paperwork to become a U.S. citizen and that son becoming someone who would participate in a bias incident. I’m not the only person in this nation with this kind of story. There are thousands of people who have gone on with their lives, gone on with their professions and had this kind of story in their background. My purpose is to lift up that type of narrative that hasn’t been heard before, but at the same time, though … on my immigration podcast that I have on iTunes, I interview people who have DACA, who have TPS, who have some kind of connection to the national conversation and I uplift them as well to show a full, well-balanced story of someone who is suffering through today’s immigration policy and how people can contribute to alleviate that suffering.    

What do you hope audience members learn after your presentation? What do you think would make it a success?

Giannetti: I hope that anything they take away from it would make it a success – if they walk away from it learning something new. I think that it’s a success already in that we’re having these conversations. There is so much misinformation and fear. If we can alleviate that in any way, that would be great.

Leiva: For me, if people in the audience walk away with some connection to either my story or the story of the DACA recipient who is speaking tonight and find just a thread of commonality that these stories will stick with them past this event. I’m hoping that people take this one grain of salt of inspiration … and do something with it.