August 29, 2017

Scholar Voices: Driving while Undocumented

Earl Woods Scholar Grace Lee

Immigrants from Seoul, South Korea, Yeon Jin Lee and her family spent nearly 15 years living in the United States in a constant state of residential uncertainly. Despite the years of stress and hardships, Yeon Jin, an Earl Woods Scholar and UC Berkeley alum, remained academically focused and built a successful career for herself as an engineer at NASA. But with her green card in hand and a stronger sense of security for herself and her family, Yeon Jin recently left her role at NASA to finally pursue her true passion—film.

This fall, Yeon Jin will begin pursuing her MFA in the Film/TV Production Program at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. And what’s more, she already has a short film out, Driving While Undocumented, which is not only based on a true story, but points a spotlight on a topic that shaped her own life and the lives of many more in the U.S.—immigration. In today’s Scholar Voices piece, Yeon Jin talks about the poignancy of her first film, Driving While Undocumented, and how it resonated with her.



I came to learn of Julio Naverrete’s short story, Driving While Undocumented, from Things I’ll Never Say – a website dedicated to sharing stories by undocumented immigrant students. Julio’s story detailed his traumatic encounter with a law enforcement officer while he drove from California to Idaho without a driver’s license.

His story made me recall the paralyzing fear and helplessness I felt when my mom was pulled over and threatened with arrest during our first year as immigrants in the United States. I wrote to Julio for his permission to adapt his short story into film, to which he agreed without hesitation.

Fear is the one word theme of Driving While Undocumented. Many undocumented immigrants live in constant fear and anxiety of deportation and separation from their families. I wanted to capture the oppressive fear felt by the undocumented immigrant community within our short film.

Our production was blessed to have two ex-law enforcement officers as our advisors, and their counsel was invaluable when it came to writing the officer’s character. The officer in our film evolved from a racist, back-country Nevada cop to a sympathetic officer who learns the implications of a traffic stop to an undocumented immigrant. I am grateful to our advisors for helping me consider the story from a law enforcement officer’s point of view. We are also deeply grateful to the story’s author, Julio Navarrete, for providing us with more insight into his story.

Undocumented immigrants live each day with fear deportation from the country they love, contribute to, and regard as home. I hope that Driving While Undocumented will help bring to light the psychological toll of living without status, and the need for comprehensive immigration reform for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

To learn more about our film and how you can screen it in your city, visit our Facebook page.

Redefining what it means to be a champion.