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Filmmakers take immigration debate to YouTube

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  • Filmmakers document immigration debate on YouTube
  • Nearly 100 video clips posted on YouTube Web page
  • Filmmakers critical of Virginia county's crackdown on illegal immigrants
  • They call their project an "interactive" documentary released as short videos
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From Jeanne Meserve and Mike M. Ahlers
CNN
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PRINCE WILLIAM, Virginia (CNN) -- Equipped with a small video camera, a laptop and a point of view, filmmakers Eric Byler and Annabel Park are trying to influence the heated immigration debate in a suburban Virginia county outside Washington.

The YouTube Web page of two filmmakers offers videos exploring the immigration debate in northern Virginia.

Click on one of the 95 video clips posted on their YouTube Web page, and a viewer is likely to find something stirring or tedious.

"Learn how to speak English," an angry man yells to a group of Hispanic residents in one clip. "I particularly don't enjoy speaking Spanish in my country."

In another, a politician receives enthusiastic applause when he tells a civic group, "Last month, we deported 56 illegal immigrants. And we've only just begun."

At a county meeting seen in another video, one man says, "Mark these words. We are going to repel this invasion one way or another."

Byler and Park are critical of Prince William County's crackdown on illegal immigrants, which required police to check on the legal status of anyone investigated in a crime, even traffic violations.

The filmmakers call their project an "interactive documentary," saying it differs from traditional documentaries in two ways. Instead of accumulating video and releasing a completed work, they have been publishing parts of it piecemeal as the story evolves.

Also, unlike with traditional documentaries, viewers can respond, either writing comments or by posting video clips.

In one video commentary, a Mexican woman sympathizes with Americans who feel Hispanics have "invaded" the United States, saying she has a similar view when she sees English-language signs in Tijuana.

Byler and Park say they decided to document the strife in the county, near where Byler grew up, after seeing articles about the debate and attending civic meetings. They originally planned to release a feature-length documentary but shifted gears after attending a meeting of a group favoring the county's crackdown.

"What we saw there, it is very hard for newspaper reporters to report," Park said.

Newspapers are reluctant to report on the racial composition of members of a crowd, or to characterize their demeanor, she said, "but with one pan of our camera, people got so much visual information about what the group was like, and so then we decided there was a need for us to do this."

So Byler and Park posted a Web page at www.YouTube.com/9500Liberty, to counter what they call "an epidemic of misinformation" about the consequences of illegal immigration.

"There was a sense of urgency in posting the videos because the decisions were being made right then and there, and we felt it was imperative that people were informed before they made those decisions," Park said.

She said the experience has made her revisit her immigrant background. Park's family emigrated from South Korea when she was 9.

She said she was particularly moved when she saw Hispanic children come to the defense of their parents, who couldn't speak English, with the scene evoking memories of her childhood.

Byler and Park said they eventually would like to assemble a feature-length documentary about the debate.

"I am hoping that the end of our story, the end of our film is actually a happy ending, in the sense that the community actually learns that they can't just use the blunt instrument of the law to handle problems that are very much about human relationships," Park said.

The community should seek solutions "instead of outlawing a group of people, instead of asking them to leave," she said.

Byler and Park said they work hard to tell both sides of the story.

An opposition leader disagrees, saying the filmmakers haven't done enough to report the negative consequences of illegal immigration.

"They're selectively editing film that they've shot in order to make everyone who disagrees with them look like a racist," said Greg Letiecq. "It's dishonest and it's irresponsible."

Letiecq runs www.bvbl.net, a forum focused on local immigration issues.

This week, Byler, Park and Letiecq were all at a meeting at which the county's Board of Supervisors voted to amend its controversial policy.

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On Letiecq's Web site, he characterizes the vote as a victory, saying he believes the number of police "status checks" of suspected illegal immigrants will rise dramatically in coming months.

His account was at odds with Park's critique as well as those by some officials and local newspapers, which characterized the vote as a rollback of the county's aggressive immigration enforcement efforts. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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