Filmmakers Find Themselves 'Inside The Film' After Protagonist Is Arrested By ICE

Mar 5, 2019

An undocumented immigrant who is the protagonist of a film about immigration activism premiering Tuesday at the Miami Film Festival is currently in detention after being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And the film's directors, in town for the festival, find themselves doing "crisis management." 

"The Infiltrators" documents a group of undocumented South Florida activists who, in 2012, plotted out a multipronged strategy to pressure the federal government to release fellow undocumented immigrant Claudio Rojas from the Broward Transitional Center, and in the process, free others. The activists purposefully got themselves booked into the Broward Transitional Center in order to speak to Rojas, build up his case in the media and get him released (hence the “infiltration”).

The strategy worked, and Rojas was released in 2012. He was arrested last week during a routine check-in and is being held at Krome Detention Center in Miami-Dade. (The film is premiering on Tuesday night and playing a second time on Wednesday night.)

“In a sense, we’re living what’s inside the film,” says Alex Rivera, one of the film’s Los Angeles-based directors, sitting in a coffee shop in Fort Lauderdale. “The campaign tactics that are depicted in the film that were used to try to free Claudio and others are the same tactics that we’re using right now as we’re also attending the Miami Film Festival.”

Rivera and Cristina Ibarra began working on the hybrid feature film/documentary in 2012, and won the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival last month.

The husband and wife duo have started an online petition calling for Rojas' release, and with the help of activists are calling for federal officials to intervene.

“What we’re asking for is support from Congress -- especially people with ties to Florida -- to put pressure on ICE and work with his legal team to built support for him right now,” says Ibarra. “We feel like in some way this is a retaliation for him speaking out. He saw injustices happening and he worked with organizers and that effort led to his release. But he’s still not free.”

A spokesperson for ICE told WLRN that the office “cannot comment on this case.”

When Rojas, an Argentinean national living in Miramar, was first detained by ICE in his driveway in 2010, he had no criminal record. Working with activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, he started gathering and organizing information about his friends in detention, and about operations of the facility itself. He started a 30-day fast to bring light to his case and it got national media attention. 

The campaign helped secure multiple releases of detainees, including that of Rojas himself.

Florida Democratic Congressman Ted Deutch was among the voices calling for action. He got 25 of his colleagues to sign a letter asking ICE to start a “case-by-case” review of each individual detainee at the facility. In the film, Rep. Deutch says it was only because of the activists' efforts “that we were first made aware of what was happening at this facility.”

The film is a cross of formats, with true to life documentary shots interspersed with staged scenes using actors. The effect is a dramatized, pumped-up version of what actually happened behind closed doors in the immigration facility and real scenes from outside.

“The dramatic scenes have a documentary spine to them,” explains Ibarra. “We have in-depth interviews with detainees who are in the detention center during the infiltration who were impacted by the work. We have in-depth interviews with the infiltrators themselves. We have internal government documents we obtained through a Freedom Of Information Act request. And all of these corroborate each other.”

A large part of the film shows immigration activists at work: discussing how to publicize bits of information, what to withhold for later and what to do when media outlets aren’t biting on a story. Those conversations can create change, Rivera argues. He points to President Barack Obama’s Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals program as “the result of a fight led by undocumented youth” along the lines of what his film is about. The program helped hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who arrived as children obtain work permits and stave off threats of deportation.

“The central message of this film is that any deportation can be stopped," he says. "You can save your loved one. There are strategies to do that. And that’s what we’re doing right now.”