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‘The Infiltrators’: Film Review

A daring group of undocumented young people go to extreme measures to liberate immigrants bound for deportation in this hybrid “prison” doc.

The Infiltrators
Courtesy of Chicago Media Project

People risk all kinds of things to make movies — money, reputations, sometimes even their health. But in “The Infiltrators,” it feels as if the crew we see on-screen is putting their lives on the line for a cause they believe in, and that the movie is just a byproduct, as opposed to the principal mission.

In that way, it’s like “The Cove,” the remarkable dolphin-saving doc in which marine-life activists sneaked into a secluded Japanese killing field like soldiers on a special-ops mission. “The Infiltrators” also documents a courageous undercover operation, this one involving Dreamers who turn themselves over to Border Patrol officers in order to assist their fellow undocumented immigrants from inside a federal detention center — except, in this case, directors Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera rely on a mix of talking heads and reenactment footage to dramatize a mission for which principal coverage was limited to a few audio recordings.

When I say “Dreamers,” I’m specifically referring to that class of young people the proposed-but-never-passed DREAM Act was supposed to protect, brought to the U.S. as children and educated in a country where their legal status was in question. “The Infiltrators” focuses on a small but impactful group called the National Immigration Youth Alliance that was active back in 2012 (the date of the last post to its official website), led by an outspoken immigrant named Mohammad Abdollahi, who comes across something like an Iranian version of indie pioneer Mark Duplass.

“The one thing that every undocumented kid is told is, you know, ‘If you see a police officer run and hide, because you could get turned over to Immigration.’ What we learned is that to actually have power as an immigrant, you have to do the exact opposite,” explains Abdollahi, who risked deportation in order to stage sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience, for which he was arrested, tried and released. “Once we had the safety of knowing that we could not be deported, we sort of had infinite possibilities.”

Much has been written about the generational differences in immigrant families — about the way parents keep their heads down and don’t ask much of their new home, while their children grow up alongside citizens, confident enough to challenge why they aren’t being treated equally — but “The Infiltrators” illustrates this dynamic put to productive use, not as terrorism but as activism.

Roughly two-thirds of the film is treated like a normal movie, meaning that it’s scripted and performed by professional actors. This portion is good enough to get the idea across, in a kind of low-budget, cable-TV kind of way: After Claudio Rojas (Manuel Uriza) is arrested and sent to Broward Detention Center, his son reaches out to a progressive group, which sets an ambitious plan into motion. Marco Saavedra (Maynor Alvarado) walks up to the gates of BDC and faux-obliviously inquires about a friend, allowing himself to be taken into custody. (The actual audio, recorded in secret, accompanies the scene.)

Once inside, Marco locates Claudio, and together, they encourage the other inmates to call Marco’s colleagues, who mobilize to sign petitions, contact politicians and use what pressure they can to get these non-criminal immigrants released. It’s exciting to see the plans unfold, gaining traction when accomplice Viridiana Martinez (Chelsea Rendon) does the same, turning herself in and working to organize the women on the segregated female side of the facility.

And yet, just how effective is this stunt, which succeeds in fooling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in order to gain access to detainees who don’t understand the system well enough and/or can’t afford lawyers? (It practically goes without saying that this mass deportation apparatus targets those without the financial means to navigate the system through other channels.) By going undercover in these detention centers, the NIYA activists could presumably expose inhumane treatment and inspire reform, but the Broward facility looks like a resort compared with the conditions depicted in every other prison movie.

If Dreamers have “infinite possibilities” to advocate on behalf of their parents, relatives and other adult immigrants, why take such a high-risk route? These kids can serve as the faces of an underground stratum of society whose political cause is inherently hard to represent because they don’t dare organize in public, for fear of exposing themselves to law enforcement — and therein lies the inherent hypocrisy in America’s immigration debate: The country relies on its undocumented population in ways most citizens don’t acknowledge or appreciate, but extends them minimal rights or visibility. We are all complicit, and future generations will judge us for it.

In the present — or, the near past, since “The Infiltrators” takes place during the period when Barack Obama was running for his second term — solutions focus on rounding up and removing those not authorized to be living in the United States. Donald Trump has further politicized the issue with his xenophobic rhetoric and ridiculous wall-building proposal, but no U.S. president can ignore it: Obama deported more than 3 million people, more than half without criminal records, during his two terms.

I don’t pretend to have the answers here, but I know the issue isn’t being dealt with honestly in this country, and I see a film like “The Infiltrators” as an important tool in reframing the conversation. Too often, the system responds to problems with punishment rather than empathy, whereas Abdollahi, Saavedra and Martinez’s scheme dramatically reveals the impact of such policy on real people. It allows us to identify with the individuals held in Broward — and in other far-less-posh, for-profit detention facilities that have opened since — who are treated as criminals, when the only “illegal” thing they’ve done is try to access the American dream. They look like prisons, but what they are is concentration camps. Can you imagine a World War Ii film in which someone deliberately tries to get himself sent to one of those?

It’s unfortunate that the film, a double prize winner at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, takes place more than half a dozen years earlier. The events feel like old news, the chronicle of a battle won (liberating a handful, who still don’t have a path to citizenship) in what increasingly feels like a losing war for immigration rights.

‘The Infiltrators’: Film Review

Reviewed online, May 1, 2020. (In Sundance, SXSW film festivals.) Running time: 92 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) An Oscilloscope Laboratories release, presented with Chicago Media Project, of a Pueblo Sight and Sound production, in association with Ford Foundation, Naked Edge Films, 3DMC, Baked Studios, Fork Films, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Producers: Cristina Ibarra, Alex Rivera, Darren Dean, Daniel J. Chalfen. Co-producer: Sarah Garrahan.
  • Crew: Directors: Cristina Ibarra, Alex Rivera. Writers: Alex Rivera, Aldo Velasco. Camera: Lisa Rinzler. Editors: Alex Rivera, Randy Redroad. Music: Tomandandy.
  • With: Mohammad Abdollahi, Marco Saavedra, Viridiana Martinez, Maynor Alvarado, Chelsea Rendon, Manuel Uriza, Juan Gabriel, Vik Sahay. (English, Spanish dialogue)
  • Music By: