Thursday, June 20, 2019
ApplicationVirtual Reality

Virtual Reality Reuniting Undocumented Immigrants with Their Families

On how virtual reality is used to allow families to finally reunite with their undocumented immigrant loved ones.

Undocumented Immigrants Figures

The issue of unauthorized immigrants staying in the U.S. is certainly a timely one. While the current administration is on a crackdown deporting them, one organization is bent on reconnecting these persecuted immigrants with their families back home through virtual reality.

According to the latest data, the number of undocumented immigrants has actually declined in recent years. From its peak of 12.2 million in 2007, records in 2016 show that it has reduced to 10.7 million.

Experts point out that there are several factors why there are less illegal immigrants now. From President Trump’s focus on completing the wall to the dip in the economy from the Great Recession – these events suggest there may be fewer reasons for people in Central America to make the dangerous journey across the border.

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But this is not to say that undocumented immigrants are few in number. In fact, they still represent 3.3% of the total U.S. population.

Immigrants, especially undocumented ones, face the great unknown and uncertainty in being away from their native land. Aside from their individual struggles, these immigrants sacrifice their personal history and sense of identity in order to provide for their loved ones’ future.

This heartbreaking situation has led some researchers to initiate a reunion project via the immersive capability of virtual reality.

 

Family Reunions Project (FRP) for Undocumented Immigrants and Their Families

Enter the Family Reunions Project (FRP). This is a venture that uses virtual reality to re-connect immigrants with their family back home.

Alvaro Morales started the project after he met someone in Virginia who wasn’t able to attend his own sister’s wedding in Mexico due to his problematic immigrant status. An undocumented Peruvian himself, Morales entered the country as a minor. Feeling the current political climate towards immigrants, he left his position at an economic consulting firm to work on the project.

He teamed up with a Guatemalan video producer, Frisly Soberanis. The two were able to get assistance from Immigrants Rising’s Fund for Undocumented Entrepreneurs and the Tribeca Institute for the initiative.

 

So, what is FRP exactly?

It consists of three components that all make use of virtual reality. First is a VR postcard. It gives an immigrant an immersive 360-degree video showing his old neighborhood, hometown, and even his family home and relatives. Through the immersive characteristic of the VR technology, an immigrant can come back home, if only through virtually.

The first VR postcard made featured not only an immigrant’s home surroundings, but their families’ and friends’ greetings as well.

Family Reunions Project FRP
Family Reunions Project – Participant seeing messages from his wife and daugther, whom he hasn’t seen in 13 years.
“I won’t be able to sleep tonight.”

In the future, Morales and FRP hope to include add-ons such as live streaming and 3D-mapping of their hometown or neighborhood they grew up in. This enables immigrants to “be there” again, and have a real-time family reunion at the home they left behind, albeit virtually.

Aside from the virtual reality postcards, the FRP is also launching a storytelling series about the virtual reunions that the group has facilitated. The goal is to use the immersive medium of virtual reality to shift the perspective on illegal immigrants. It also aims to show the actual impact of not being able to come back to their families.

The third component of the FRP is about equipping undocumented immigrants with the tools to create their very own VR experiences. Providing a training curriculum for the technology, as well as extending a lending program, will give immigrants the chance to delve into the art form. Through this way, immigrants can show their native land through their own lenses. This initiative also aims to give as much room as possible for marginalized voices through the virtual reality platform.

 

FRP Humanizing the Plight of Undocumented Immigrants

Some parts of the project were put on hold last September due to restrictions for citizens like Morales to travel outside the country. However, this did not stop him from channeling his efforts to another immigrant project. This time, he is working on an experience, also under the FRP project,  which aims to show viewers a glimpse of how virtual reality can close the distance and reconnect an undocumented immigrant with their loved ones and home.

Entitled “Home with America“, it is an interactive virtual reality documentary, done in collaboration with Oculus, Tribeca Film Institute, and Culture Strike. It features an undocumented immigrant living in Los Angeles for almost two decades, and her emotional reunion with her mother left behind in Lima, Peru, through the Family Reunions Project.

Through these powerful pieces, the collaboration between the art and tech worlds, brings about a stark change in society’s perception of the issue. With virtual reality, physical borders no longer hinder human connections between and among loved ones.

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Gergana Mileva
the authorGergana Mileva
Based in Prague, CZ, Geri is a freelance journalist and writer, focusing on technology, finance, and marketing.