As an undocumented immigrant in the US since the age of seven, Viridiana Martinez, 30, spent years trying to avoid arrest by Customs and Border Protection officers. So it was surprising when she wanted to get arrested in July 2012. It took her two attempts.
For her first attempt, Martinez, who was born in Mexico and lives in North Carolina, put on a sundress and walked into a Customs and Border Protection Office in Florida. She spoke only Spanish and hinted to her illegal status by flashing her Mexican passport. The officers seemed confused and sent her back out the door.
So when she tried again a few hours later, Martinez didn't hold back. She tied her hair back, wore the plain clothes of someone who cleans houses all day, and basically begged to be deported.
"I was just crying saying, 'Please send me back home. My husband has been deported. I have nothing left here. I was fired from my job. Please just send me back,'" said Martinez, describing the scene at a port in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The officers detained her and sent her to the place she wanted to go—the Broward Transitional Center, a holding pen for undocumented immigrants with pending deportation cases.
For most undocumented immigrants, the situation sounds like a nightmare. But Martinez is part of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a group of radical immigration advocates trying to expose the injustices of US deportations from the inside. The project is now the subject of a forthcoming documentary called The Infiltrators, which follows Martinez and others as they risk their own deportation to help others in detention centers.
"We are trying to make a film that is thrilling and profound," Alex Rivera, the film's co-director and co-producer, told me. "It is a human high-stakes drama that takes place to contemplate how this country is treating immigrants today."
The film, which has received funding from the Sundance Institute and the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, follows the activists in real time with cinema verite footage. The audio from Martinez's arrest was captured by an undercover recording device, and there is video footage of other infiltrator arrests.
A good chunk of the story plays out inside the detention center where Rivera and Cristina Ibarra, the film's other co-director and co-producer, could not get access. To bridge their documentary footage, Rivera and Ibarra are working on a scripted drama using actors, which is written in part from detention-center records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
"We are trying to create a film that is as formally risky as what the activists themselves did in their process and in their medium," said Ibarra.
I spoke to Martinez, Rivera, and Ibarra about the activism, the film they're making, and what really happens in immigration detention.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Viridiana, where did you get the idea to get arrested and get inside these detention centers?
Viridiana Martinez: Another member of the youth alliance had previously tried it at another detention center in Alabama. I did it on the women's side, and another person with the alliance did it on the male side with the male detainees.
And what did you learn?
Martinez: To actually live it out [being in detention] with my own flesh and bone... It is something that I would want other people to feel. I want them to feel that same kind of empowerment in going up against the government. When I was leaving the detention center, I remember they had my cellphone, and they wouldn't give it to me. The officer who had it, I wanted to see what his name was on his badge. He didn't want me to know his name, and I said, 'What are you afraid of?' His lip was quivering, and I remember thinking: These people know they are in the wrong. Detaining these people for months and years without a criminal record is wrong. I will never forget that guy's quivering lip. I was just one person. I can't even imagine what so many empowered people can do.
How did you go about helping those locked up in detention centers when you were in there?
Martinez: For a lot of these people, lawyers said there was nothing that they could do or they weren't doing anything. So we would talk to people about the option of making their case public by way of an online petition, getting their family members to go to congressional offices and expose the issues for them, in hopes that they would advocate on their behalf. We talked to people about different ways that they can fight their deportation cases.
Rivera: They [Martinez and the other infiltrators] understood that there were many people inside of Browed who didn't have information that could have helped their case. They basically set up a pop-up legal center inside of detention. They actually were able to stop deportations by simply explaining to people what their rights were.
Was there something specific that you were trying to expose with the activism and the film?
Martinez: Everything you ever heard on TV that former president Obama said—"We are deporting criminals, not people with strong ties to the US"—that wasn't really true. The proof was we were getting calls and messages from family members detained at that detention center in Broward, Florida, and that is what lead us to go there. We hoped that we could get detained and expose what was really going on.
Rivera: Not surprisingly, if you went into these detention centers, [you would notice that] there are tons of people who are not criminals. There were people apprehended and put in detention for driving without a license, or, in some cases, someone was fishing without a license. The infiltrators wanted to expose the fact that the Obama administration, which was deporting 400,000 people a year, were not just deporting felons and gang bangers. They were deporting all kinds of people—students, mothers, hard-working people.
Alex and Cristina, how did you first come across this story?
Rivera: Both Cristina and I have been doing work on border and immigration issues for 20 years. Cristina and I both come from families of recent immigrants, some of them undocumented. Around 2010, I started to see in the news something I had never seen before, which was undocumented people doing civil disobedience—getting arrested and facing deportation as a consequence of their action. The people who were doing it were folks generally known as DREAMers [undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US at a young age]. I was curious about what would push someone to that extent that they are willing to be deported, to Iran or Mexico or El Salvador. I started following the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, and they ultimately invented this strange form of activism.
Ibarra: For me, all of my work is really set along the border in one way or the other. I consider myself a border filmmaker. I really saw this as an extension of being a border film. They are really entering a detention center where they don't know if they are going to be released on the US side or on another side.
Why did you decide to do a documentary on this?
Rivera: We found the human drama was explosive because inside this detention center are women who are separated from their children, people who traveled around the world to this country only to end up in this for-profit prison. Then there is, of course, the activists who are risking never seeing their families again.
Ibarra: Another dimension is we are used to seeing the immigrants who are humble and vulnerable and need help, but here we have immigrants who are taking controls of their lives.
When will we get to see the film?
Ibarra: We really want to push to finish this year, but it depends on funding.
Follow Serena Solomon on Twitter.