Shortly after the coronavirus shutdown commenced, daytime talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres compared lockdown in her million-dollar mansion to "being in jail." The backlash was swift. Perhaps most starkly, prison-reform activists noted the threat of COVID-19 that hangs over inmates who are confined to spaces where social distancing is impossible.
This week's virtual screening of The Infiltrators will shed light on the plight of the incarcerated — those caught up in U.S. immigration detention centers in particular. The documentary combines actual footage and re-enactments to show how a group of young undocumented immigrants got themselves detained in the Broward Transitional Center (BTC) in 2012 in an effort to educate detainees and help to win their release.
Co-directors Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra premiered the film at Sundance in 2019. After several two failed attempts to showcase it at the Miami Film Festival, the documentary will premiere online this Friday, May 1.
The film was scheduled to screen along with a Q&A with the directors at last year's festival, but organizers backed out shortly before the opening credits were scheduled to roll. Deeming The Infiltrators too controversial, they explained that they didn't want the festival to appear to be taking sides in the immigration debate. (They did allow the film to show at the Silverspot Cinema downtown.)
"I’ve been around the world, even in countries that you would not suspect to be open about stuff like this, and, frankly, I've never experienced this before," one of the producers told New Times last year. "And I don't think it's a coincidence that this is a film that is set in the Miami-Dade area."
The film festival later apologized and offered to give the directors a formal South Florida premiere at the 2020 festival. But the coronavirus pandemic put an end to that, cutting short the event when stay-at-home orders were put in place.
While the immigration debate lately has mostly focused on the actions of the Trump administration, The Infiltrators is proof that America's immigration system was broken long before that.
In 2012, Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which prevented the deportation of children who'd been brought into the United States illegally, as long as they hadn't committed felonies or serious misdemeanors.
“At the time of the infiltration, the Obama administration was saying, ‘We should deport felons, not families,’” co-director Alex Rivera tells New Times, noting that the government knew that most of the immigrants who were being detained and deported weren't felons.
"The Obama administration was a dark time for immigrants in America," Rivera continues. "During those years, deportations hit a record high of 400,000 per year. The idea that those were all ‘felons’ or ‘hardened criminals’ is ridiculous and impossible. That administration was tearing apart thousands of families."
The activists depicted in the film belonged to a progressive group called the National Immigration Youth Alliance (NIYA). Their aim in infiltrating the BTC was to gather facts about individual detainees, foster relationships with their friends and families, and then launch a public-awareness campaign to shed light on their plight.
“This detention center was a perfect place to expose this contradiction because it was filled exclusively with noncriminal immigrants — almost 700 of them,” Rivera says.
The film begins with the story of NIYA member Mohammad, a young, gay Iranian who was brought to the United States illegally as a child. He hardly knows his country of origin, but he's well aware of its intolerance to the LGBTQ+ community, and the peril he'd face if he were sent back. He also knows there are tens of thousands in similar straits, and he believes that if they were to band together they'd be able to wear their vulnerability as armor to press their case to remain in the United States — and free.
He persuades two fellow undocumented young adults, Marco Saavedra and Viridiana Martinez, to infiltrate the BTC. On separate occasions, Saavedra and Martinez walk to the gates of the BTC, attract the guards' attention and tell them they need help — a clear indication they're in the country illegally. The ruse is successful.
Once inside, the two work to identify detainees whose cases seem likely to attract public sympathy and to rally other inmates around them, all the while passing information to Mohammad and the documentary team on the outside.
The film uses look-alike actors to reconstruct what transpired inside the gates of the detention center in Broward. The result provides audiences with a window into the lives of the inmates — one that might lead them to consider the plight of detainees during a pandemic.
“The vision and voice of undocumented leaders pushed us to develop a new visual language," Rivera says. "We hope The Infiltrators inspires audiences to find visionary political solutions to the crisis of immigrant detention. It starts with seeing.”
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At its 2019 Sundance premiere, The Infiltrators took home the NEXT Audience Award and the NEXT Innovator Prize. It went on to win Best Documentary Feature at the 2019 Blackstar Film Festival and the 2019 Ashland Independent Film Festival.
Since the film's release, many of the activists have gone back to their regular lives and work. One of the central figures, Argentine detainee Claudio Rojas, was deported in April 2019.
"It’s been a nightmare for the film team and for his family, and we are hoping to use the release of the film to build a campaign to bring Claudio home," Rivera says of Rojas. "He’s one of a large group of immigrant activists who seem to be facing 'enhanced enforcement’ — targeting, basically — by ICE for speaking out."