Growing up, Moises Serrano was just one of a handful of Latino kids in his elementary school, and it wasn’t until he was out of high school that he met another openly gay person. Now, Serrano is a prominent UndocuQueer organizer and the subject of the documentary Forbidden: Undocumented and Queer in Rural America, about his coming of age and to terms with his multiple identities as a gay, undocumented Mexican immigrant who grew up in Yadkin County, a rural farming community in North Carolina.
In October, the film received the Social Justice Award from the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose outreach director, Lecia Brooks, praised Forbidden in an online statement, saying “Anybody who believes that immigration reform should simply be deporting people like Moises must watch this film to see the real lives and families affected by our nation’s immigration policies.”
In the film, viewers get to watch some important moments in the 27-year-old’s life, from falling in love for the first time and getting into college to his reaction upon hearing that the Defense of Marriage Act was found unconstitutional. Some of the most poignant moments, perhaps, are the interviews with Serrano’s mom. She is one of the millions of undocumented immigrants with long-established roots in the United States but no pathway to citizenship and who did not benefit from President Obama’s 2014 executive action, which would have at least temporarily alleviated fears around detention and deportation. In those interviews, she speaks about her experiences with migration and family separation, telling viewers early on in the film that the “person who hasn’t [migrated] north doesn’t know what it is to suffer.”
While juggling his studies at Sarah Lawrence College—where he received a full scholarship, in part because of his contributions to his community—the 27-year-old was promoting Forbidden. In a phone interview with Rewire at the time of the film’s premiere, in the fall, Serrano discussed the effect of anti-immigrant laws on an undocumented person’s mental health, the importance of community, and why he has chosen to be public about his status in the United States.
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Rewire: What was it like growing up in Yadkin County? Was there an undocumented community or a Latino community in the area with which your family could connect?
Moises Serrano: My family migrated to the United States in 1991, and shortly thereafter we moved to North Carolina. Yadkin County was a different place then. We were one of the few migrant families around. I think there were fewer than five other migrant or Latino kids with me in elementary school. It wasn’t until high school, in the early 2000s, that I started to see an increase in the state’s Latino and migrant population. That’s really when I saw tensions starting to rise over this growing segment of the population that, in terms of numbers, wasn’t very visible before. For me, navigating the space before the increase in migration to North Carolina was very different than navigating it after.
Rewire: It was in the early 2000s that things started to shift in North Carolina. What do you think caused the uptick in anti-immigrant laws in the state and around the country?
MS: I think these laws emerged for two reasons. There was an increase in the migrant population, particularly Latinos, but also our state—like many states—had a [far-reaching] response to 9/11. The United States implemented new programs under the guise of fighting terrorism, and [immigrants] were all swept away with it. So when there was an increase in undocumented populations, a rhetoric emerged that we should be criminalized, because we are a potential threats to the country based solely on the fact that we have no citizenship status.
After 9/11, the [United States] saw the increase in border enforcement, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the state-by-state criminalization of undocumented migrants, the stripping away of driver’s licenses, and other privileges that some undocumented immigrants had in some states. It took a bit to trickle down, but when it did, it really did.
Rewire: But is a state anti-immigrant just because its laws are? Broadly, how would you characterize North Carolina?
MS: I would separate the North Carolina I remember growing up in and the place it is today. When I was younger, maybe because I wasn’t exposed to it, I just do not remember our state being as anti-immigrant as it is now. Some of the people who helped [my family] out, some of the farm owners my parents worked for, are still friends with us to this day. They have been incredibly supportive of my family since we arrived. That’s the North Carolina I know. I feel like the community back then understood why migrants were there; they were there to do jobs that needed to be filled in farming and agriculture. The farm owners understood that, and they welcomed us.
Rewire: When we talk about anti-immigrant laws, we are talking about federal or state policies that can hinder migrants from accessing basic necessities. In your documentary, you make a point of talking about how anti-immigrant laws also affected your sense of self and your self-worth.
MS: I think people do not realize that any type of law that targets a specific community or group of people in our nation will have a deep psychological effect in that community. Policy is not just policy. Policy isn’t just about laws; it’s about psychology, self-worth, and self-esteem. I’m going to quote a Republican [who, at the time of this interview, was running] for president: It’s about making it so hard for these people to live here until they decide to pick up and leave. Growing up, during crucial points in my life when I was figuring out who I was, and what I was, and my place in society, how was I supposed to digest and understand the fact that the nation I had grown up in was rejecting me for not having citizenship status? That’s something I’m still very vocal about to this day, because that pain and confusion is very real.
Rewire: In the documentary, you talk about experiencing depression when you were growing up, in part due to the laws that complicated your life—and the lives of people in your community. Do you think mental health is an overlooked problem in undocumented communities?
MS: Mental health is something that’s rarely addressed in undocumented communities because of structural [barriers to] access. Undocumented migrants are not eligible for Obamacare, even immigrants like myself who benefited from DACA. We’re exclusively barred from the Affordable Care Act, so access to mental health care is a major issue in the community.
There’s also stigma. In older generations, I don’t think people are used to talking about the psychological stress that they undergo because of policies. To them, things like depression are just another thing they deal with quietly. In younger generations, because we’ve had more access to information, there are more open conversations happening around depression and suicide. It’s about access. It’s about stigma. The more we talk about it, the more we can get the [undocumented] community comfortable speaking about this. But we have a long way to go.
Rewire: In the documentary, there’s a lot of footage of you publicly sharing your story with people who presumably don’t have a great deal of understanding about the immigration system. Are you surprised by how much—or how little—people know about the immigration system?
MS: In terms of people I’ve spoken to, almost no one understands how complex and incredibly backwards our immigration system is. When I share my story and explain exactly how there is no “line” for people like me to get into, a person like me who just wants to go to school—once they understand that, it’s a no-brainer. The thing I get the most from people is, “I can’t believe there’s no pathway for you.” People can’t comprehend how migrants can live in this country for decades, contributing in a variety of ways, but not have any pathway to citizenship. To a lot of Americans I’ve spoken to, they think it’s ridiculous.
Rewire: How did your parents respond when you came out as undocumented?
MS: My mother thought I was crazy, and I didn’t even tell her everything I was doing. I was sure she wouldn’t let me do a lot of it. To her, it was too risky. But as soon as she saw the community I developed through El Cambio and the change we actually brought to people’s lives, she changed her opinion.
El Cambio stopped people’s deportations. We were registering people to vote. I think her mind started to change when she saw there was power in this. People like my mom also need a community, people who understand her plight and her obstacles. I think for her, meeting the filmmaker and the producers was very reassuring, helping her understand there are people on our side and standing by us as allies. That encouraged her to speak up and share her own story.
Rewire: Outside of the documentary, you mean?
MS: Yes. What’s not in the documentary is that my mom came out of the shadows shortly after [Obama’s executive action]. The [emerging] immigration movement has helped people like my parents understand that it is OK to come out as undocumented, that it’s safer, and that we have to own our stories if we want to enact change. She understands that now.
My mom came out as an undocumented mother in 2012, and it made front page news of the Winston-Salem Journal. It made her feel proud, it made her feel like she was contributing. It was this amazing moment where an adult immigrant, an older person whose story we don’t usually hear, captured local media. We don’t see that very often. The immigration movement has empowered people like her, and it’s the adult immigrant community that we really have to fight for.
Rewire: Now that the documentary is out in the world, what do you hope comes of it?
MS: I have no expectations. I’m still feeling overwhelmed. It feels really surreal to think of how far we’ve gotten. This documentary was born, raised, and funded in the South and for us [involved in the documentary], the fact it’s come this far is incredible. My hope is that it will reach a larger audience. There’s not only my story, but I believe the director and editor told a larger, compelling story about immigration that is greatly informative. My takeaway every time I see the documentary is how perfectly it destroys the stereotypes about immigrants in our country. I hope that by sharing this documentary, we can get Americans to understand that those most impacted by immigration policies are people like my sister and people like my mother. Putting their faces to this struggle is fundamental to changing the national narrative.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.