Aura Alvarez, top, immigrated to the U.S from Guatemala in 2006. Here she laughs on the floor with her former roommate Reyna. (Andy Fernandez)

Paola Perez came to the United States to be reunited with her mother after two years. She is a recent graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School and a student youth organizer at the nonprofit Many Languages One Voice. (Andy Fernandez)

The debate surrounding immigration — particularly the growing number of undocumented immigrants and border protection regulation — has become a central focus of the current U.S presidential campaign. Controversial comments made by Donald Trump in recent weeks regarding his characterization of illegal immigrants have sparked a storm of criticism, while further fueling the heated debate over immigration.

In 2014, Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker and photographer Andy Fernandez began interviewing and photographing undocumented youths across Washington, hoping to add perspective and context to an otherwise complex discussion of what it means to belong or be accepted by a society completely. The project evolved into the short film and photography series called “Risers” that looks at everyday lives of Latino youths at a unique moment in their lives as they journey toward achieving college education, jobs and a place in America. The film, among other things, explores the cultural identity of young undocumented immigrants in D.C., a topic that is near to Fernandez’s heart: He was born to Bolivian immigrants.

[Young, accomplished, undocumented: “Risers” features four local achievers]

“The mission of ‘Risers’ is to raise awareness of the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform that sets a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants,” Fernandez tells In Sight. “My hope is that the short film and portraits gives them an opportunity to tell their stories and establish new relationships with an audience that is unfamiliar with undocumented immigrants.”


Aura Alvarez with her mother, Ofelia, at her mother’s Mount Pleasant apartment. Aura immigrated to the U.S. when she was 13, and up until then had no memory of her mother, who immigrated to the U.S in 1988. Andy Fernandez)

Aura in her bedroom. At the time this photo was taken, she was sharing the room with a friend. (Andy Fernandez)

Douglas Gonzalez, 22, in the assembly room of Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Douglas immigrated to the U.S from El Salvador in 2005. (Andy Fernandez)

“I live here as a productive member of society, but I’m not native born, and I’m not a citizen. I feel like a part-time American,” Douglas Gonzalez says.


Douglas is in the bedroom of his Mount Pleasant apartment. He shares the room with his mother. Here they are joined by Jenny, Douglas’s girlfriend since 2012. She was faced with a housing emergency and needed to stay with Douglas for a short period. (Andy Fernandez)

Douglas praying in church on his 22nd birthday. As an active member of the church, Douglas participates in the choir and is also a designated “Servidor,” a person who guides new members. (Andy Fernandez)

Yanci, left, and Carla Flores came together with their parents from El Salvador in 2002. “Coming from El Salvador, I remember a man with a machete in Guatemala. He wanted to rob our family,” Yanci says. (Andy Fernandez)

Brenda Perez, 19, in the bedroom she shares with her mother, Lilliana. Brenda emigrated from Mexico in 2006. (Andy Fernandez)

Gerson Quinteros, 20, in the living room of his Petworth apartment that he shares with his mother, stepfather and stepbrother. Due to their immigration status, his family members declined to be photographed. (Andy Fernandez)

“I immigrated with my godfather and his wife,” Gerson says. “I came by buses and cars, and then in Texas, I crossed a river by tube or raft. I came here because my grandmother who was taking care of me died and I was reunited with my mom here in the U.S.”