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Films occasionally have the power to sneak up on viewers, to instigate a debate, challenging ethics, morality, and something fundamentally more personal – the stories we tell about our own histories. Last year, I missed The Infiltrators, from Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera, on the festival circuit. In my role as a festival programmer for the Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival, I kicked myself based on the response the film received. My intuition told me it would have been a knockout selection in our slate.

The film is a necessary hybrid, a perfectly executed blending of documentary storytelling, capturing the behind-the-scenes work of a group of undocumented youth (Dreamers) – members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance – who initiate a daring plan to infiltrate a for-profit detention center in Broward County, Florida and help detainees gain their freedom by exercising their legal rights. The facility is packed with people who were targeted for arrest and face long-term detentions with no timetable for their cases to be heard before eventual deportation. Those deported are typically immigrants without criminal record; they are merely folks caught up in a lucrative privatized system – an offshoot of the industrial prison complex. In order to do this desperate and important work, Dreamers deliberately get picked up and detained themselves, putting their own freedom at risk.

But, it becomes clear that the NIYA network is not some ragtag effort. These young organizers have built a coordinated network of believers and activists, skilled in the use of counter-protest campaigns in this social media-driven landscape who are unafraid to use any and every instrument at their disposal to achieve their goals. Like past civil rights movements, NIYA inspires a younger generation to weaponize laws and civil disobedience.

The story begins with a request for support. Claudio Rojas gets picked up outside his home while he’s throwing away trash. He and his family have no papers, meaning once he’s detained, there’s nothing his family can do without endangering themselves as well, so they reach out to the Dreamers.


Maynor Alvarado as Marco in ‘The Infiltrators’

Marco (Maynor Alvarado) accepts the challenge of going inside Broward to make contact with the recent target. It sounds, in theory, like an extraction from an action movie. The real Marco, in voiceover commentary, tells us about his situation; how he works in his family’s restaurant, but feels compelled to do something more.

He’s a bit naive, not quite aware of the myriad of ways things can go wrong. I was drawn to Marco from the start when he compared Customs & Border Control and Broward County Detention Facility to the Death Star. It was obvious that Marco and the NIYA were the resistance fighters, although they looked like kids pretending to be smugglers in their backyards. Furthering Marco’s cultural and sociopolitical cred was his phone screen image, a photo of Frederick Douglas and how he wasn’t just reading Kafka, but living in a Kafka-esque reality.

The pace of the film at the start is a bit hectic, but we see and appreciate how things will unfold. The world outside the detention center is real, complete with more documentary-style discussions with real NIYA members like Mohammad Abdollahi, a young gay Iranian who serves as the mission team coordinator. Smart and engaging. There’s a fearlessness in Mohammad (and practically everyone we meet) that never tracks as reckless arrogance. Instead their quiet resolve and dedication is inspiring, making the case for this approach over the Hollywood brand of guns-blazing machismo we might expect from Liam Neeson in Taken.

Inside the detention center, the reenactments feature a tentativeness and amateurish quality that approximates the real life stakes of the detainees in these situations. Alvarado’s Marco enters with no idea what he needs to do and stumbles along. By happenstance, he meets his target and lays out the plan. Rather than a miraculous action-oriented breakout, there’s paperwork to fill out and pass to team members on the outside who will then be in position to apply the necessary pressure to force the system to release the target.

But Marco sees and hears the stories of so many others that he decides to recruit them to get involved in saving themselves. That he’s willing to do so, despite knowing that at any time someone could expose him to the guards, heightens the tension, but not to an exaggerated degree. It doesn’t take much time before detainees get involved in the scheme to alert as many as possible about the plan and the NIYA’s hotline is flooded with calls from the inside for help.

Inevitably, such improvisation leads to the need to ratchet up to a full-on protest movement, initiating a fast (rather than a hunger strike, which would allow facility officials to force feed participants) to support the most severely impacted long-term detainees. What’s amazing to see is how people from all over the world, with vastly different stories and circumstances, unite for a common goal. Ibarra and Rivera obviously coax and massage the narrative a bit, removing some of the likely rougher edges from the situations on the inside, without dramatically altering the end result.

And to that end, The Infiltrators made me consider my own status as an American citizen. As a black man, I am undocumented. My family came here – much longer ago – without papers or rights to citizenship.

I have no idea how many generations of my line have been on this land, worked as slaves to create this land and country. My grandmother’s grandfather was the first freedman in our family. His name was Solomon. I have an old photo of him. I remember my great-grandmother, who was alive when I was born. In fact, she’s part of my earliest memories as a child, visiting her in the nursing home, lying in bed next to her. I even remember when she died, being too young to go to the funeral.

Now somewhere along the way, we gained “papers” – freedom, but not the true Constitutional embodiment of the ideal until later. It could be argued that we’re still fighting, protesting to achieve that goal. So maybe I’m an infiltrator too, or more accurately, I should be. In The Infiltrators, the filmmakers and the subjects are asking us all to reconsider what it takes and what it means to be an American. What are we willing to do to ensure that everyone gets to live the dream?

(The Infiltrators is available via Virtual Cinemas at The Esquire & Mariemont on May 1, 2020.)