By Radical Means Necessary: Interview with Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera

Diana Flores Ruiz


Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s recent film The Infiltrators uses a bold mix of film forms to tell the true story of a group of young undocumented activists who intentionally detain themselves in a South Florida immigration detention facility. Styled as a heist film, Ibarra and Rivera weave together verité footage, testimony, and reenactment to produce a compelling argument against immigration detention. In Diana Ruiz’s interview, Ibarra and Rivera discuss the ways in which The Infiltrators problematizes extractive modes of documentary film and how the project’s requisite reenactment brought about unexpected results. They also discuss the creative and political dimensions of “undocumented storytelling,” which relates to the filmmakers’ enduring commitment to depicting fully dimensional representations of immigrants and Latinx experiences.

Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s new docufiction film The Infiltrators (2019) follows a group of young undocumented activists who confound border-patrol agents in order to gain access to detainees inside Broward Transitional Center, a landmark South Florida detention facility. The filmmakers follow key activists throughout the planning; once the activists slip into Broward, though, the filmmakers lose visual access and rely on actors to re-create the experiences inside. As a result, The Infiltrators’s bold style echoes the activists’ ethos of exposure by all radical means necessary.

Individually, Ibarra and Rivera have already enriched the visual imaginary of Latinx experience and problematized representations of the U.S.-Mexico border. Best known for her documentary Las Marthas (2014), Ibarra presents the U.S.-Mexico border through an expository lens. Las Marthas follows two young women from both sides of the border as they prepare for a debutante ball celebrating George Washington’s birthday in Laredo, Texas. The film traces the ball’s bewildering settler-colonial history, yet remains generous and open in its curiosity toward this elite cultural cornerstone as a study of class, gender, and tradition within intergenerational cross-border communities.

Rivera’s landmark film Sleep Dealer (2008) presciently figures a speculative future in which private, transnational entities minimize Mexican access to water and maximize American access to workers across the border, exploiting both physical and psychic labor through biometric virtual networks. A decade later, the film strongly resonates with urgent questions of the nocturnal side of technology, the privatization of natural resources, and the governance of who has the right to a future, and under which conditions.

The Infiltrators picks up Rivera’s earlier themes in its treatment of new-media surveillance, for-profit carceral institutions (namely, the GEO Group), as well as the burdens of uncertain detention duration and restricted mobility for undocumented immigrants. At the same time that it moves beyond testimony and reenactment, The Infiltrators retains Ibarra’s documentary edge and keeps a clear structural analysis in play. The Infiltrators is Ibarra and Rivera’s first major collaboration as creative and life partners. The combination of their divergent styles and commitments to justice through the image yields a novel approach unified by steadfast politics.


Undocumented immigrant Claudio Rojas (right) with actor Maynor Alvarado.  Courtesy Pueblo Sight & Sound.

Since immigration detainees lack safeguards within the criminal legal system, such as the right to legal counsel, activist protagonists Marco Saavedra (who appears as himself and is also played by actor Maynor Alvarado) and Viridiana Martinez (who appears as herself and is also played by actor Chelsea Rendon) smuggle information between detainees and the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) activists on the outside. As grassroots activists, they start small; they initially go in to help one detainee, Claudio Rojas—who appears in the documentary sections and is also played by Manuel Uriza—and progressively organize others at the Broward Transitional Center once Claudio takes Marco under his wing. Collectively, the NIYA activists devise media publicity campaigns and conduct direct-action events in order to pressure political figures to intervene in detainees’ cases.

Spanning a period from the late 2000s through the early 2010s, their organizing tactics must respond to changing immigration regulations, largely during the Obama administration. The group’s intervention successfully liberates Claudio and a few other detainees, yet the film reminds audiences that detention is merely one cog in a broken, highly profitable machine. Playing up elements of the heist genre in their pacing and documentary structure, Ibarra and Rivera strategically shape the world of the film around the vitality of immigrant communities. Using a robust combination of verité footage, reenactment, and testimonies, the film wagers that the sobering realities of immigration policies and pitfalls need to be constantly chronicled anew.

Toward the beginning of The Infiltrators, its narration delivers statistics that bring the immigration industrial complex into view: forty thousand immigrants are indeterminately locked up in over two hundred detention centers across the United States, and one deportation occurs every single minute. Recent news coverage of preventable deaths and ongoing abuse in these detention centers signals the multiple forms of violence that detainees must endure, in addition to isolation from their families and uncertain proximity to freedom or deportation. These are the stakes Ibarra and Rivera expose in their film, a kind of prelude to today’s “crisis” at the border. As an antidote to the onslaught of suspicious-immigrant narratives and news spectacles, The Infiltrators supplies a much-needed burst of momentum in the fight for a just immigration system.

When Marco approaches the border patrol to turn himself in, he checks his phone one last time to activate the voice recorder. It’s no accident that his phone’s screen saver is an image of Frederick Douglass, for Ibarra and Rivera are making a case for the abolition of immigrant detention. Their strategy is to claim visibility as a human right, and to insist on exposure as civil disobedience.

What makes their approach so radical is that visibility has long been the antithesis of traditional guarantees of survival for undocumented people. I witnessed this code personally growing up and learning how to divert questions to protect my family’s immigration status when nativist rhetoric surged in my Florida hometown. As the only member of my family born in the United States, I witnessed the ease with which someone could fall “out of status” or become undocumented within a complex immigration system.


Activist Viridiana Martinez.  Courtesy Pueblo Sight & Sound.

Inside Broward, the activists meet immigrants with diverse backgrounds prior to their detention: “dreamers,” political refugees, and domestic-abuse survivors, to name a few. They all share an initial reluctance to participate in Marco and Viri’s plan, yet their attitudes change once their story is picked up by a news outlet. After seeing Viri on the news, Neema, a Congolese domestic-abuse survivor detained for three years, cautiously asks whether her name will become public if she accepts Viri’s help. Viri starts explaining, “We don’t have to use your name,” until Neema interjects, “No. I want my husband to see.” The film argues for power through self-representation, for visibility as a route to agency within a structure that benefits from degrading the image of immigrants.

Not only do Ibarra and Rivera use their film to recognize immigrants as shrewd and audacious heroes, but they also develop the immigration industrial complex into a sort of character, one in need of greater understanding by the U.S. public. Indeed, The Infiltrators enacts a politics of critical exposure on multiple fronts. From the film’s establishing shots at the U.S.-Mexican border to malicious ICE officers, visa documents, surveillance-technology capture, biometric intake, border-patrol agents, and a thrilling sequence involving a privacy waiver, the film sheds light on the long-hidden, seemingly innumerable and interconnected facets of U.S. immigration. The heist genre works to dramatize these crucial pieces, pulling them together throughout the infiltrators’ mission, the tracking of which offers audiences a compelling display of the machinery at work.

The Infiltrators stands apart from other cinematic explorations of the immigration system by eschewing the kind of straightforward investigative style relied on by most media coverage and social-issue documentary on the subject. Its exceptional style emerges out of necessity, since Ibarra and Rivera lacked access to the film’s activist protagonists while they were detained; however, by necessity they developed a style that speaks to the formal and conceptual paradoxes of “undocumented storytelling.” Without the ability to see or film inside the Broward Transitional Center, Ibarra and Rivera problem-solve narrative solutions and comment on the creative means required to fill in the gaps produced by immigration’s failure.


Ibarra and Rivera on the set of The Infiltrators.  Courtesy Pueblo Sight & Sound.

When “proper,” sanctioned evidence is made meaningless by an unjust system, undocumented people (and their allies) must produce other means of visibility. This kind of storytelling, which seeks to document what the system refuses to recognize, demands ingenious workarounds and relationship building. It is a testimony not only to Ibarra and Rivera’s history as filmmakers but equally to their deep ties to activist communities that they were able to summon the networks of trust necessary for such a project. The Infiltrators activates the best of Rivera and Ibarra’s previous films. It utilizes the heist genre to critique the biopolitics of neoliberal exploitation explored earlier in Rivera’s Sleep Dealer and benefits from the vibrant border-cultural production seen in Ibarra’s Las Marthas, for The Infiltrators draws on both to construct layers of cinematic modes, pushing docufiction to an exciting new frontier. At its Sundance premiere in January 2019, this creative risk-taking earned the film an Audience Award in the NEXT category and the NEXT Innovator Prize.

As the filmmakers discuss in this interview, their inventive production methods— such as scripting after shooting and conducting memory workshops—arose organically as they followed this incredible story and spent time with their community, particularly Claudio Rojas.

Author’s note: Since the film’s debut and the attention it has attracted, ICE has deported Claudio back to Argentina. Rivera and Ibarra are committed to helping reunite Claudio with his family in Florida. They urge that donations to help bring Claudio home be made via his family’s Go Fund Me page:

Diana Flores Ruiz: It’s easy to feel the impact of the current political climate when the film shows detainees fighting their way to freedom. Yet, as the film depicts, much of the legal architecture of the current immigration system was reinforced during the Obama administration. Was this an important historical fact you wanted to emphasize?

Alex Rivera: For a while we tried to suppress narratively that this all happened under Obama. We wanted to make it feel like it could have happened yesterday. But ultimately we realized that, in order to dig into the specific strategies of the activists, their struggle with the Obama administration in particular was central. We ultimately felt it was an important reality to look back on from the age of Trump.

What we ended up seeing under Obama was an administration that built a massive infrastructure on the ground. The detention center where the film is set is a part of it. But there was daylight between what was happening on the ground and what Obama was saying about immigrants—sympathetic things. That was the chasm that the activists threw themselves into. They were exploiting the dissonance between what Obama was saying and what he was doing. That was fascinating to watch.

In the age of Trump, in an age of so much explicit rhetoric of hate, our film looks back and reminds that the immigration battle is also a material one. You need agents on the ground, vehicles, buildings, infrastructure—all of which was built up under Obama and just handed over to Trump. Trump was able to execute his agenda more effectively because a more pro-immigrant politics wasn’t executed under Obama. We hope the film speaks to those continuities as well as to the ruptures.

Ruiz: Do you think The Infiltrators ruptures something in film history?

Rivera: Our film is one of the first, if not the first, feature to be set in an immigration detention center. Along the way, it struck us that there is a body of films set inside of prisons and jails; there’s many of them, both fiction and documentary. In the world of nonfiction, we think of a documentary like Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack’s The Farm: Angola, USA (1998). But there aren’t any films set in immigrant detention. This system has blossomed and carefully managed its own image in ways that are keeping it even darker in the shadows than prisons and jails.

Ruiz: The Infiltrators has compelling documentary moments, and it also has thrills, due to the creative elements that play within its heist or prison-genre moments. What other films influenced your approach?

Cristina Ibarra: We also looked at Road to Guantánamo [Michael Winterbottom, Mat Whitecross, 2006] for the way that it used interviews with the real protagonist within the scripted scenes that made up the majority of the film. We also looked at adventurous hybrid films like The Arbor [Clio Barnard, 2011], The Imposter [Bart Layton, 2012], Wormwood [Errol Morris, 2017], and American Animals [Bart Layton, 2018]. We looked at those films to find ways that people who lived through the events interact—or not—with the reenactments.


A storyboard from The Infiltrators.  Courtesy Alex Rivera.

Rivera: We were looking at hybrid films and were also looking at the heist genre because we were interested in trying to tell the story in a way that could ideally engage new audiences and audiences that don’t care about immigration on the face of it.

We tried to use elements like the title, poster design, trailer, and ultimately the story structure itself to try to bring people into this film that we started calling the Oceans Eleven of immigration. We were making a film about people being smart and savvy and challenging a system, and we wanted to bring an audience along for that ride and see whether we could reach a different audience than the one you reach through a film that appears to be more intellectual, or sits more comfortably in the art-film circuit.

Ruiz: This approach echoes what you said earlier about not wanting to depict detainees and undocumented people as suffering victims, but instead as resistant and creative. Was expanding the representations of undocumented people an explicit concern?

Rivera: Definitely. To us, it’s coming from having cross-border families. We know that our families are filled with tricksters and people who are solving very complicated problems in very creative ways. And that’s just reality. To bring that into the film is right and natural. It’s actually not even an adventurous thing to do. It’s actually an accurate thing to do, to try to depict our own communities as being …

Ibarra: … as fully dimensional.

Ruiz: Both of your filmographies attest to your nuanced understanding of border histories, politics, communities, and cultural production. The themes of The Infiltrators seem like a continuation of those in your past films. What feels new?

Ibarra: The idea of the border is something that I’ve explored, and not just geographically. The stories are often physically set on the border, but I also try to think about “the border” in terms of storytelling, and to challenge myself to think of the film as a way to cross borders.

What I found really exciting with this film was that there was a performance aspect to it. The activists were playing roles in order to cross a kind of border, and go into detention; what side of the border will they return to? Is it going to be the country of their birth or home with the family? “Am I going to be deported?” That was how I saw it when I first started to think about the film. It’s very much a continuation of these border questions around privilege and border crossing: who’s allowed in, who’s not, how we define that, and the morality of it all.

What I found so interesting was the tactic of undocumented youth trying to get themselves detained. That is the last thing they’re supposed to do! They are not supposed to let themselves be seen at all, yet here they are doing the exact opposite. That was really exciting to me. I wanted to understand what it was that moved them to try to think about the border in this way.

Rivera: For me, I think there’s definitely continuity with my past work in terms of an interest in genre as a gateway into seeing these themes. As much as Sleep Dealer used science fiction to look at the border, this film is using the trope of the heist to jump-start a story around a detention center.

There were lots of new challenges that we faced in making this film. We were trying to find a way to get the film forms of documentary and fiction to speak to each other in a novel way. I have to admit, I don’t generally like hybrid films. A lot of them have a layer of interview with somebody talking throughout the film, off and on, about events in the past that then you see reenacted with actors; it ends up giving the whole thing kind of the feeling of a permanent flashback or something. It feels oddly …

Ibarra: … past tense?

Rivera: Yes! You’re looking backwards all the time. Our early edits felt like that, and we wanted to run away from that. So we tried to really foreground our verité footage showing the events unfolding in real time and then have our characters move from the verité footage into the scripted space. So you meet the character as a real person, in verité footage. But at a certain moment, they walk away from that camera, and into detention—where they are represented by an actor, in a scripted space. From detention, the actor (playing a real person) picks up the phone and calls out, into the documentary space. The two timelines move forward together.

Embedded in this process was an exploration of tense and time in hybrid films. We wanted to make a hybrid film that also felt very much in the present tense. And that was not only new for us; we think it’s new for the medium. We don’t really know of other films that operate that way. That’s ultimately why we feel like we can justify spending seven years making a film—because it’s doing something that we haven’t seen before.

Ruiz: The texture of the film is enriched by all the different documents you weave together: audio, like Marco’s secretly recorded conversation with border patrol toward the beginning; video, amassed from the actual individual release campaigns; and the infiltrators’ own phone calls from inside Broward Transitional Center. Your cameras are filming as far into the detention center as possible. How, though, did you plan for and shoot what was visible only to Marco and Viri inside the detention center?

Ibarra: We depended on Marco’s, Viri’s, and Claudio’s descriptions of life in detention. We had to get them on board with this creative approach because they were the ones who were going to open up that part of the film for us. Then we did something that documentarians are not supposed to do: we showed them a rough cut of the film.

A large part of the story is set inside the detention center; all of that had to be imagined and re-created. Alex drew storyboards of the scenes to illustrate those things that we couldn’t see. When we showed this to the protagonists, they watched a mash-up of documentary footage and storyboards, but it gave them a really good idea of what we were trying to do.

We ended up depending on memory workshops. Once we had focused on specific moments of the story, we’d ask them to re-create them with us. We had a measuring tape, and we drew out the geography and were able to get a lot of details in a very visceral way because they were able to take themselves back inside together. And then, once we did that, we were able to fully script what we were going to shoot. So we wrote the script after we had the rough cut of the documentary sections. It’s a very backwards process!

What was really beautiful was that we had Claudio as our guide on set. He was very involved in helping us re-create that space—every detail, from the way the cell looked to the way it was laid out to how it felt. He was moving around, between departments, from the actors to the art department to sound. He was just kind of everywhere, and that really informed a lot of the look and the feel.


Activist Marco Saavedra (Maynor Alvarado), in a scene from The Infiltrators.  Courtesy Pueblo Sight & Sound.

Ruiz: Were there elements that you gained from those memory workshops that seemed especially important to honor, to try to stay as true to life as possible?

Ibarra: When we were doing the memory workshops with Viri, she said it [Broward] really felt like she was in a mental institution. It felt like a clinic to her. We ended up shooting the reenactments in a decommissioned mental institution. It was a coincidence, but her memory helped us say yes to that location once we found it.

Rivera: Our journey of trying to go from a space we didn’t know at all to a space that we re-created and made physical, that materialized in front of the camera, had a lot of way stations. One step was archival: looking at images of the interior of the facility. There’s not many, but there are some, and we found them on—a clearinghouse for the U.S. Department of Defense. There, they have B-roll footage of Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security activities. They even have some images from the inside of Broward. And we had our interview material from all of the formerly detained people who had been inside Broward. But it was really living and working with Claudio Rojas for a month that brought everything to life.

For example, Claudio told us that, in the detention center, paper was a commodity. It was the only material you can easily get your hands on. And so the detainees would make little origami that they would use as gifts when their children would visit. And so we put that in the film. It’s something you have to look out for, but it’s there. Details like that came out of the sensory experience of building this detention-center set, together, with little details that never came up in our sit-down interviews.

Ruiz: The film introduces the audience to many people inside Broward. I sincerely appreciate the variety of ways in which detainees’ status and stories were depicted. Were you deliberately aiming to broaden ideas about the backgrounds and circumstances of those who are undocumented and detained?

Rivera: Yes, for sure. Geographically, Broward sits in Florida as a kind of a gateway to South America, across the Atlantic to Europe, and to Africa. It was a very multicultural detention center, so it was important to us to depict that accurately and to take advantage of this opportunity to show this kind of upside-down United Nations, seeing the world’s populations swept up in such a system. That seemed important.

Ibarra: There’s also the question of generational differences. You have “dreamer”-aged detainees there alongside parents. That was striking to me.


The multicultural and multigenerational world of the detention center.  Courtesy Pueblo Sight & Sound.

Ruiz: The detention center seems like a metonym for the border. Although the bulk of the film occurs inside the detention center, the establishing scenes are stylized surveillance shots of the border and border crossers. I’m curious. Why was it important to you to foreground the film at the physical U.S.-Mexico border instead of sticking with Florida?

Rivera: We liked the idea of starting with the thing that you’ve seen a million times: the border wall. But when you see people starting to cross, you hear a first-person voiceover from one of the crossers. So you’ve undergone a 180-degree shift in perspective from looking at the wall, which we see in the TV news reporting all the time, to going into the memory of somebody who had themselves crossed. And those images, which are rooted in a practice of surveillance and social control, become the personal memories of somebody who was there. This was our main character’s first contact with the immigration system when he crossed through the desert as a four-year-old, and started to engage with the system. When we meet him in our movie as someone in his early twenties, he is still struggling with the system, so it seemed like the right place to start the story.

Ruiz: Speaking of starting the story, could you go back to how you first built relationships with these activists? The hybrid approach, as you’ve discussed, was a fundamental response to your production constraints. When did it seem that this would be the stuff of a feature film?

Rivera: The whole thing began around 2010 when I first saw the National Immigrant Youth Alliance conducting civil disobedience in streets and government offices. These were young undocumented immigrants, getting themselves arrested and risking their own deportation as an act of political protest. As someone from an immigrant family myself, who’s been involved in the immigrant-rights space for years, I was stunned. And terrified and confused, too. So I reached out to them to try to understand what they were doing, and how the state was responding. I thought I’d make a short film. As I was starting to edit that film, the activists went out and did something bigger and more radical. So I tried to film that and then edit. But they kept going and I realized that I was now fully engaged with a project that was morphing. I realized that this was a group of people trying to figure out the system and its vulnerabilities and how to attack it and how to find freedom—and it was not going to be a short film. So I stopped editing.

Cristina started to work with me, and we just started to film and follow the activists over the course of about two years, off and on. We didn’t know what the film would be until it was done. The movement reached a pinnacle in 2012 and then somewhat dissipated. As we looked back at the footage, this one chapter of the infiltration of the Broward detention center seemed like a story with a really nice beginning, middle, and end, and with a fantastic set of characters. It was like a short story that spoke to the bigger picture, but it had a problem: we could see only half of it. Only half of it was documented in front of our camera.

And so we had that challenge of how to see what we couldn’t film inside of the detention center. Once we decided this was the story to tell and that we had this challenge, I think we both started to fall in love with it. The fact that we couldn’t see half [the story] was ultimately the lovely part of the film as a creative journey. We talked about using animation; we talked about austere and theoretical performances, like those in Lars von Trier’s Dogville [2004]. Somehow, when we realized that half of our story was missing, we both started to feel like it was going to be a good film.

Ibarra: The testimonials that the activists recorded before each action really got to me. I saw them speaking directly to the camera and saying, “Mom and Dad, if you are watching this, it’s because I have been detained and this is why …” I just found them so moving. From there, we had the challenge of trying to figure out how to tell this story. I really remembered that testimony and the footage of Viri in the scene where she’s dressing the part. Organically, we thought of acting—because that’s what they do, they are performing these actions. It’s almost as if we were taking the lead from their own creativity. That gave us permission to be creative as well.

Ruiz: There are several instances of manipulating a system against itself shown in the film. Marco and Viri perform the racist and classist stereotypes of their own communities in order to gain entry into the detention center. Then, they and their fellow activists break an undocumented practice of silence in order to strategically broadcast their status across media channels. I wonder if you think of your film as working through and against conventions of traditional narrative feature and documentary modes in order to open up a new way of storytelling.

Ibarra: Very much so!

Rivera: Yes. I have no idea if we’ll see more films structured this way—using the observational verité camera to depict people living their lives in front of its lens, but having those stories enhanced or in dialogue with a performative element, with those formats weaving back and forth throughout. I don’t know if we’ll see a ton of that, but I do think it’s a good response to these times.

We’re living in a world in which there’s an increasing number of people disappeared into these boxes. We live in a state [California] where there’s a huge amount of images produced all the time through the mechanisms of surveillance. And yet there’s also an unprecedented number of people in a legal limbo zone in these detention centers. The idea of creating a visual tapestry was to ground it in the immediacy of observational cinema and cinema verité because of the way that form communicates to an audience something authentic and “real.” It vibrates in a certain way that lets people know this is actually happening. And the idea of having that material in dialogue with other material intended to represent what you cannot see has felt to us like a form that might be useful for this moment in time. But I have no idea how other folks might put it to use. I hope they do.


Storyboards helped map The Infiltrators’ production.  Courtesy Alex Rivera.

Ibarra: This was such a weird process for me. I have never worked on a film like this! Every step of the way, there was a moment of discovery. We worked backwards. First we made a rough cut, which we needed to define the script. We were in postproduction and development at the same time—like this, where I have a rough cut and then go back and shoot. I think that we ended up with this way of telling a story because we were trying very hard to keep the film as present tense as possible, and just keep the clock moving forward, whether we were in the dramatic space, the scripted space, or the documentary space. That was the challenge of this film. It could have ended up really, really badly. That was the risk that we accepted with this film by putting these two forms together.

Ruiz: Solidarity plays a crucial role at every level of your film. On a production level, there’s the robust solidarity of you, as directors, alongside the NIYA activists, the detainees, their families, and the actors. In the film, Claudio’s hunger strike organizes disparate groups of detainees, notably both men and women together. What kinds of solidarity do you hope for in the future?

Ibarra: I feel that for the first time we’re making a film where we’re not telling people, “This is important. You need to care about this.” Right now, immigration is seen as a crisis. One of the things that I hope will happen is that we can bring to the table the voice with the most experience in these matters, which is the voice of the undocumented person. And have that voice be a part of the solution.

Rivera: For myself it was a really revolutionary process in terms of my own life to make a creative work that was aimed at telling a true story that other people lived, then bring those people in to have a dialogue about the script and [for us] to ultimately create a film in dialogue with its subjects. We too often in the film community sit very comfortably with “extractive” models, producing narratives out of a process where filmmakers drop in and capture material and walk away. Even if they’re smart people, even if they’re well-intentioned people, there are inherent power dynamics in documentary that deserve questioning and deserve disruption. I hope that our process can serve as a model of a kind of solidarity or respect between politically committed filmmakers and activists in the field.

Then, I hope that we can have that kind of dialogue and openness and even solidarity with programmers and curators. We feel that it was a really adventurous decision for Sundance to program the film and put it in the NEXT section, surrounded by much more traditional fiction films.

Within the film community, we are looking for allies to help share this film with the world: programmers, distributors, critics. It feels possible now. One of the bizarre silver linings of the Trump era is that people can see this nightmare that’s been simmering in the borderlands for a long time more clearly now. And that recognition can create new opportunities for discussion, and new strategies that didn’t exist or weren’t as readily possible even a few years ago.

Ruiz: I want to end by acknowledging the political stakes of your film and the risks taken by each of the real-life subjects in The Infiltrators. Can you describe the retaliation against one of your protagonists, Claudio Rojas?

Ibarra: The mission of the [NIYA] infiltration in 2012 was to find Claudio Rojas in the detention center, expose that the facility was filled with noncriminal immigrants—which contradicted statements by President Obama that his administration was deporting “felons, not families”—and ultimately build a campaign to get detainees, including Claudio, released. When our film premiered in January 2019 and won awards at Sundance, it created a higher profile for Claudio.

Claudio had been living in Florida, free and with his family, and going to check-ins with ICE once a year, since he was released in 2012. But when he went in for his check-in a few weeks after the Sundance premiere, ICE detained him and then deported him. He had been living in the United States for almost twenty years. Claudio had an active case with the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services department. People who have an open case with USCIS, according to ICE’s policies, should not be deported so that their case can be investigated. Since this happened against ICE’s own policies, we feel that this was done in retaliation for his participation in the film.

Rivera: And right now, we really need, more than anything, just simple old-fashioned solidarity with Claudio as we build the next phase of work with the activists to raise money for Claudio, and to lay out the next phase of the campaign aimed at bringing him home.

With this film we were interested not in looking at immigration and detention from the point of view of the suffering and the violence of those systems, but instead looking at strategies of resistance. Core to the strategies that were developed by the infiltrators is visibility—being seen, coming out of the shadows. All of that language was central to what they did. When they infiltrated the detention center and when we started to document that process, the assumption was that visibility equaled safety. Similar to the way ACT-UP formulated [their motto] Silence Equals Death, the analysis that drove a lot of our dialogue with the activists and the Rojas family was that by being visible, undocumented immigrants can become more powerful, and therefore safer. That was an analysis developed under the Obama administration. During that time, it often seemed that one of the only ways to get out of an immigrant detention center was to get on TV.

Now, under the current administration, we’re in a landscape where that equation might not function the same way. Immigrant activists are being targeted specifically by ICE. That’s red meat for a white-supremacist base that this president serves. But does that mean undocumented folks should go back into the shadows? We don’t know. The search for immigrant power under this administration is a process of discovery, between activists, radical lawyers, community members, artists, and so forth.

The fact that our film’s visibility may have contributed to ICE targeting Claudio is a nightmare for us. It’s like a version of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich [1999] set in Trump’s hellscape, where a film becomes involved in the lives of the people depicted in it. We’ve all just relived the events of the film as we tried to stop Claudio’s deportation, in 2019, in a different political reality than the one the film depicts, but with the film itself as an asset. It would be intellectually fascinating if it weren’t so heartbreaking.

The story is not over. There are multiple lawsuits that are ongoing: one on Claudio’s behalf and one on our [the filmmakers’] behalf. The ACLU is representing us in a First Amendment lawsuit in federal court, asserting that if ICE is going to target immigrant subjects of films, then how can we have a free and fair discussion about immigration through film? Their attack on the subject of our film is intended to chill free speech and discourage filmmakers telling these kinds of stories.

Ibarra: And to discourage people who might participate in those kinds of films.

Rivera: Exactly. In any case, your question goes right into the bloody pulsing heart of everything we’re doing. And it’s really the most complicated thing we’re thinking about right now. Everything about normal film stuff is seven degrees simpler than everything around this question of retribution, and strategies of immigrant visibility in the current political moment. I don’t think we know the full answer to it yet. It’s something we’re trying to work through.

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