Church community center hosts first annual film festival


St. Francis of Assisi Church is on 31st Street, around the corner from Penn Station. Photo: Mallory Shelbourne.

St. Francis of Assisi Church is on 31st Street, around the corner from Penn Station. Photo: Mallory Shelbourne.

The Migrant Center at the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, a Catholic Church near Penn Station, held its first Indie and Foreign Film Festival at the church’s San Damiano Hall last month.

The five-night festival included short and feature films focusing on human rights. Many were about immigration and human trafficking, issues both closely related to work done by the church’s Migrant Center, which helps provide legal services for immigrants.

On the third night, the church showed “Not My Life,” a film that followed human trafficking victims in countries that included Senegal, Cambodia, and the United States. While victims in Senegal included young boys sold by their mothers to learn a specific trade, the film also showed a teenager named Angie who ran away from her home in Wichita, Kansas, was forced into prostitution, and subjected to physical and emotional abuse.

Allan Andre, 27, a poet who attended the screening, says that he was a victim of human trafficking from the time he was an infant until he could escape at 17 years old. Andre says human trafficking is “one of the most secretive fronts that exists.”

“I think it is necessary and essential for people to have some entry point into this issue,” said Andre, who added that he would like to see more links drawn between human trafficking and the injustice of class relations.

According to the New York State Office of Children and Family Issues, approximately 100,000 to 300,000 children who are U.S. citizens are currently involved in sex trafficking.

In 1999, Father Brian Jordan, a former priest at the church, founded the St. Francis Immigration Center, which focused its work on immigrants’ papers and statuses. After a brief hiatus, Father Julian Jagudilla assumed the role as director of the Migrant Center after coming to St. Francis in July of 2013 re-launching the Migrant Center in November of 2013. The change in name reflects a more all-encompassing mission, as it now works to educate the community on immigration and related issues, while still taking immigration cases.

Jagudilla chose all of the films for the festival, which was free and open to the public. “Our stance here is that we welcome anyone regardless of their politics or religion,” said Jagudilla.

On the final night of the film festival, the church showed “Undocumented,” a documentary about Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, based on his life as an undocumented American. Vargas immigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 12, and it wasn’t until the age of 16 that he learned he was undocumented. When he tried to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get his driver’s license, he found out his green card had been falsified. After years of hiding his status from his friends and colleagues Vargas wrote an essay about his situation in June, 2011, entitled “Outlaw,” in The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

When President Barack Obama announced the United States would not deport any undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 who were eligible under the DREAM Act, Vargas was still ineligible. He was 31 at the time.

According to the film, the United States has deported more than 2 million undocumented workers during Obama’s presidency, more than during any other administration. But an April piece in the Washington Post says that the definition of the word deportation is used differently in various contexts, which can at times deflate or inflate these figures.

Volunteers of the Migrant Center go to an immigration detention center in New Jersey once a month to visit immigrants and learn their stories.

Cristina Godinez, who moved to the U.S.  from the Philippines in 2002, is one of two lawyers who work at the Migrant Center, on both human trafficking and immigration issues. She says that in many cases, attaining visas for her clients under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act can be complicated, requiring many documents and a high threshold of evidence.

The film festival brought together students and senior citizens. More than 50 people filled the audience for the final night’s screening, which was followed by a spirited discussion about the film and Vargas’ situation.

The Migrant Center collaborates with other parishes in New York City and with the New York Asian Women Center. Jagudilla plans to continue the film festival next year and hopes to choose more selections about women and children and other victims of violence.