'Building the American Dream': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Moyo Oyelola
An eye-opener about the abuse of workers whose immigration status makes them victims.

Chelsea Hernandez's first feature-length doc focuses on the exploitation of undocumented construction workers in Texas.

An immigrant-centered doc about fighting the exploitation of construction workers in Texas, Chelsea Hernandez's Building the American Dream is, like Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra's The Infiltrators (a Sundance premiere now showing at SXSW), a look at undocumented residents whose willingness to stand up for what's right makes them better citizens than many native-born Americans. An eye-opener that shows the human cost of corporate greed, it will, of course, be seen by few if any of the xenophobes whose eyes most need to be opened. Nevertheless, it is a worthy addition to debates over how we deal with immigrants and what we demand of employers.

We begin with a recorded 911 call in which a construction worker is said to be "extremely ill" and in need of an ambulance. Unfortunately, Roendy Granillo's bosses didn't notice his body was failing in the summer heat on a worksite near Dallas, and by the time he reached the hospital, his body temperature was over 110 degrees and his organs were failing. The 25-year-old died, prompting his parents to join an effort urging the Dallas City Council to legislate what would seem to be the bare minimum of humane treatment: a 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked.

The film succinctly explains how Texas' aversion to making such rules has contributed to "The Texas Miracle" — a building boom, spurred by corporate welfare and a see-no-evil regulatory attitude, that has made the state home to four of America's five fastest-growing cities. And if protections are slim for workers who are citizens, they barely exist at all for the undocumented — a population that fills half of the state's construction jobs.

In between chronicling the campaign for a work-break ordinance — watch Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman call Granillo's grieving relatives "charlatans"; see Mayor Mike Rawlings sigh, "I wish we had the power to make those people's lives better. It's just not true" — the doc introduces other campaigns for justice.

The Workers' Defense Project advocates for immigrant workers generally and gets involved in specific cases: When Claudia, a woman from El Salvador who works with her husband as an electrical contractor, was stiffed by an employer for $11,000 (the building's superintendent set up an appointment to pay them, then called the cops when they arrived), it was WDP that informed them of their rights. The law says workers are owed legal debts regardless of their documentation status; still, a fifth of undocumented workers are denied pay at some point. The project helps Claudia file suit; viewers are advised not to hope for too much satisfaction in their case.

We meet journalists, activists, and even the occasional construction-industry tycoon: Marek CEO Stan Marek says "I'm not real popular" in the construction industry, having been a vocal critic of immigration policies that are "not sustainable." On the whole, his peers seem happy to treat immigrant labor as a commodity, wearing workers out until others arrive to replace them.

It's disheartening what passes for good news in this involving film. A cheated worker celebrates after getting a check for less than four percent of what's owed; a barely sufficient safety law passes — but it only applies in Dallas, and Austin's the only other city in the state that mandates any kind of rest break. Politicians fret that billionaires will go elsewhere if they're expected to do the right thing: "Stop saying no to business," Lee Kleinman whines. Meanwhile, a construction worker dies every 2.5 days in the Lone Star State.

Production company: Panda Bear Films
Director: Chelsea Hernandez
Producers: Chelsea Hernandez, Marisol Medrano
Executive producer: Marcy Garrett
Director of photography: Erik Mauck
Editors: Sarah Garrahan, Chelsea Hernandez
Composer: Gil Talmi

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight)

In English and Spanish

72 minutes