The human side of immigration
Filmmakers Greg Blank (left) and Patricia Shih with Dr. Harold Fernandez, whose life story has been made into a documentary film.

Courtesy photo

The human side of immigration

Story By: LIZ FINNEGAN
2/23/2017


SUFFOLK COUNTY—Dr. Harold Fernandez, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Northwell’s Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, is the subject of a new documentary film based on his life. The compelling tale was first recorded in a book the doctor penned about his struggle as a child making his way to the United States as an illegal immigrant. This heart-wrenching and timely story is told in the movie “Undocumented: The Life Story of Dr. Harold Fernandez” by Patricia Shih and Greg Blank that is making the rounds in the film festival circuit.

Dr. Fernandez published his memoir “Undocumented” (Tate Publishing) in 2012. His story began in Medellín, Colombia, where at the age of 13 he and a younger brother fled the poverty and violence of a crime-torn city to join their parents, who were already illegally residing and employed in New Jersey. It was not an unusual plan of events for people in his country looking to escape to a better way of life.

“Medellín is a wonderful city, but had gone on hard times,” Dr. Fernandez explained. “I saw a lot of my friends getting killed or end up in jail. But there was no way for us to come here with [legal] documents,” Dr. Fernandez remarked.

And so the two children climbed aboard a small vessel along with 11 others; one of them served as a guardian for the underage passengers. The boat headed toward the island of Bimini, located in the western end of the Bahamas. However, the last leg of their voyage to Miami was delayed in Bimini for two weeks as a hurricane swept across the Caribbean Sea. Once they were able to resume their journey, the effects of the storm remained. “It took us seven hours…the waves were so high, but we made it,” he said.

In Miami, the boys received assistance from friends of their family who helped them get airline tickets to New York, where they were reunited with their parents. 

The family, still undocumented, settled in West New York, N.J., where the children were enrolled in public school. “I worked very hard in high school,” said Dr. Fernandez. He was accepted to attend college at the prestigious Princeton University. “I went to Princeton with a fake Green Card, but then I was [eventually] found out.

“I told the university what I’d done…and they allowed me to stay.”

Dr. Fernandez and his professors began writing letters to politicians and received support from then-Sen. Bill Bradley and President Ronald Reagan. He and his family finally did get their legal Green Cards. He graduated from Princeton and went on to graduate from Harvard Medical School.

A few years ago, Dr. Fernandez met the film’s executive producer, Patricia Shih, when one of his children began taking music lessons with her husband in Huntington, where they both reside. Shih, a popular Long Island singer-songwriter, came up with the idea for the film after reading his book.

“Patricia is a wonderful person, very passionate about social issues,” Dr. Fernandez said.

“The book was amazing, compelling, sad, all of the makings for a good movie,” Shih said. “He trusted me and said I could have his story.”

The story resonated with Shih, whose father had emigrated from China in 1945. A news journalist, he was Visa number 25 of the 105 Chinese per year who were allowed into the country, two years after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. 

“Without my father, we would not be here,” she said. “But immigration is such a hot topic right now and we are taking huge steps backwards,” she said.

Shih said although her work has mostly been in the music genre, she had always had a desire to make a movie. “Up to that point, I had only made video [movies],” she noted. 

And so she enlisted the help of Greg Blank, who became the film’s associate producer. 

Blank had 15 years of experience producing short films and commercials. He founded his own company, Blank Slate Productions, in 2012. Since 2014, he has produced hundreds of segments for a magazine show on Verizon Fios 1 called “Push Pause LI.”

Blank said Shih pitched him the idea of making the movie. “She said, ‘It would make a good documentary.’ I read the book and agreed it would make a compelling film,” he noted. “We began to brainstorm with the doctor about how to do it.”

A crowdfunding website was then started at Kickstarter.com, where donations began pouring in. “A lot of people were excited about the film from the human, political and justice angle,” he said.

More than $25,000 was enough to complete the 72-minute movie featuring lots of photos and interviews.

“Telling his story was daunting; there were a lot of details to keep track of,” said Blank. “But it was a great experience, very fulfilling.”

Shih said the timing is right for this type of film, as the subject of immigration continues to draw so many opposing views. “If we are not guided by compassionate values and a sense of our own history, it will hurt our country,” she said, adding that she hopes the movie will incite a better understanding of immigration and the many possibilities that come from it.

“Dr. Fernandez has since changed so many lives, and he has saved so many lives,” Shih said. “That would have been a huge loss for America [if he didn’t immigrate]. And there are so many more [immigrants] like him.”

Dr. Fernandez reflected on his story and said he hoped the film would help people remember that we are basically a country of immigrants.

“I find it very sad that people have forgotten their roots,” he remarked. “[Immigrants are] one of the reasons why our country is so strong. And this is a very compassionate country,” he said. 

“This film highlights the human aspect of the [immigration] story, and that’s why it’s so important. 

“Most of the people who come here are doing it for opportunity and also for dignity.”

“Undocumented: The Life Story of Dr. Harold Fernandez” premiered earlier this year at Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre and will be shown on March 16 at the Queens World Film Festival as well. Tickets for that showing can be purchased at www.queensworldfilmfestival.com. Dr. Fernandez’s book can be purchased at www.amazon.com.