The Broward Transitional Center is a nondescript compound plunked on the side of a highway in Florida.
The name is innocuous, but the GEO Group-operated facility is one of over 200 Kafka-esque purgatories used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or ICE) to warehouse alleged illegal immigrants prior to deportation.
It's the for-profit clearing house at the end of every "undocumented" citizen's worst nightmare.
It is, effectively, a black site for those held without trial, sometimes for years.
And Marco Saavedra—the child of undocumented immigrants originally from Oaxaca, Mexico—is wondering how he can get in.
Thus begins The Infiltrators, a sizzling docudrama hybrid getting its Vancouver premiere at the Cinematheque next Friday (August 30), courtesy of the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival.
Switching between interviews and crisp, dramatic re-creations, the film tells the story of a wild caper conceived during the Obama era by the National Immigration Youth Alliance—or the "Dreamers", as NIYA's young, savvy "illegals" call themselves. If they could get Saavedra inside the facility, the Dreamers figured, then he could covertly coach its inmates on how to get out.
"Around 2010 we saw the news of these undocumented youth getting arrested and facing deportation as part of an act of political protest, and we wanted to understand what was going on, to understand the risks they were taking, and how the government was going to react," explains filmmaker Alex Rivera, who directed the Sundance award-winner with Cristina Ibarra. "We felt like it was important to tell a story in which undocumented folks were actively trying to puzzle things out and find freedom inside of these systems. It's something we'd never seen before, that was really necessary to see."
Calling the Georgia Straight from Florida, Rivera describes The Infiltrators as "a kind of heist film set inside of a documentary reality," though it's the byzantine nature of U.S. immigration policy that triggers much of the tension. After getting himself arrested by the South Florida Border Patrol—he calls the checkpoint "my own personal Death Star"—Saavedra sets about issuing NIYA's hotline number to his fellow detainees and spiriting legal documents in and out of a facility that operates on impregnable silence.
Essentially, Saavedra's strategy was to enlist inmates in an effort to bring unwanted media attention to BTC while badgering the offices of politicians like Florida congressman Ted Deutch, who could order the release of a detainee with a single phone call. A second Dreamer, Viridiana Martinez, accesses the women's wing of the facility. Both are met with skepticism and a permeating hopelessness, and they face immediate danger from guards, snitches, and—we eventually see—a system flexible enough to identify and outrun their tactics.
Indeed, it's no secret that NIYA's efforts at BTC ended triumphantly in 2012 with the release of several low-security detainees. But, as Rivera remarks with a bitter laugh, "This is a portrait of the good old days. The whole immigration system is a separate body of law and it all runs under the executive branch. It's more like a gulag or a prison system in which people are kind of swept up at the discretion of an administration. The scary thing is that it's all politics. It's not based on any kind of objective metrics. It's at the whim of the president who gets locked up and who gets deported. So, on day one, Trump decides Muslims are 'banned'."
The filmmaker continues: "Under Obama there were record deportations, but if you could get on TV, if your local Democratic congressperson made noise, if you fought like hell—you could get out. Under Trump, what we've seen is the opposite of that. Deportations overall are down, but they're explicitly targeting outspoken immigrants who are activists, who are artists, who have a high profile. They are explicitly being targeted by ICE, a heartbreaking event that happened to one of the real people in our film, Claudio Rojas."
It was a desperate email from the family of Rojas that prompted the Dreamers to storm Broward in the first place, and his story is central to The Infiltrators, which now inherits a somber, real-world epilogue.
"It's a terrifying system, but also a very vulnerable one," Rivera reasons, "because, if we had a different president in this country, we could and should demand a very different immigration system from them. And they can kind of create it on a dime, meaning quickly, the way that Trump quickly created all these changes we're dealing with today."
On a more immediately positive note, The Infiltrators is now being adapted into a TV series by, of all companies, Blumhouse Productions. "Which is, of course, known for Paranormal Activity and Jordan Peele's recent horror film Get Out," says Rivera, now a veteran observer of the abuses and nightmare logic of ICE and its profiteering partners like GEO Group. "We can't think of a better company to try to understand America's immigration system than Blumhouse."
The Vancouver Latin American Film Festival runs from Thursday (August 22) to September 1. More information here.