What drew you to telling this particular story about the immigrant detention system in the U.S.?
Alex: I’ve been working on films about the border and immigration issues since the mid-1990s. However, in 2010, I saw something I’d never seen before: immigrants getting arrested on purpose, facing their own deportation, as an act of political protest. The scene was superficially familiar—a young person doing a sit-in. But the reality was absolutely distinct. These protesters were not only facing jail as a result of their protests, they could be deported to countries they didn’t know. I felt worried, confused, disturbed... I was used to undocumented people—including those in my own family—living in the shadows. I wanted to understand these radical actions: the activist strategy, the government response, what it all meant for immigrants in the U.S. Those questions drew me to this story.
Cristina:I grew up in the twin cities of El Paso, Texas / Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. I clearly remember my regular border crossings as a kid and declaring citizenship to cross the international bridge. I felt lucky to be able to move back and forth, even if I didn’t always feel I belonged here or there. Years later, as an adult, I saw Alex working with a young woman’s video testimonial and it triggered my memories of border crossings and my own relative privilege. The testimonial was from Claudia, a young undocumented woman, declaring “Mami y Papi, if you are watching this, it is because I have been arrested.” Claudia was preparing for an act of civil disobedience. Her actions were to create support for the Dream Act. She was fully expecting to go to jail and to potentially be deported to a land which she remembers absolutely nothing about. Her actions were a tactical political strategy that won protections for undocumented young people. They were using their visibility to organize. Power isn’t given to you. You take it.
How did you meet Marco Saavedra and Viri Martinez and Claudio Rojas, the film's protagonists?
Alex:After seeing these incredible and audacious protests in the news, I felt there was a story. I had been working on the theme of immigration throughout my entire career, starting in the mid 1990s, and it turned out that I had mutual friends with the activists. I asked to be introduced, thinking I would make a short film about one of these actions. The film ultimately became a long journey, taking me around the country, across the border, and almost seven years to complete.
Cristina: I’ve been thinking about ways of visualizing and updating border narratives for the past twenty years. I saw Alex working with Claudia’s testimonial and was immediately captivated by her power and urgency. It was surprising and disturbing. My own father’s stories about growing up undocumented described his constant instability and a fear that made him live life in the shadows. This new generation of undocumented youth was turning this old attitude upside down and building collective power by being visible. They were bold, loud and pushing the government to recognize them in ways that were unimaginable to me. I had to understand why these younger folk were outing themselves in what appeared to be the most vulnerable and public way.
What has happened to them since you finished the film?
Following our 2019 Sundance festival premiere, a protagonist of The Infiltrators, Claudio Rojas, was suddenly deported. Claudio had been in the United States for twenty years. We believe his deportation was, in fact, illegal retribution by ICE for Claudio’s speaking up through the film – and part of a broad pattern of retribution by ICE against immigrant activists. Claudio is arguing his case in Federal Court, contesting his deportation on First Amendment grounds. We are having early conversations with the Biden Administration to highlight the problem of retaliation by ICE. We hope that what happened to Claudio and The Infiltratorswill be remedied by stopping ICE retribution and by bringing Claudio, and others who were illegally targeted, back home to their families in the U.S.
Marco Saavedra has won political asylum, setting a legal precedent for undocumented activists seeking refugee status in the United States.
Viridiana Martinez co-founded Alerta Migratoria, a rapid response deportation defense organization in North Carolina. She serves as the organization’s director.
What was the process of creating scripted re-enactments within the film? Why did you choose to go with a hybridized route when telling this story? Were there other options you considered?
We started our process thinking we would make a ‘traditional documentary,’ but when the Dreamers went into detention, we faced a challenge: our camera could no longer document their story. We tried to get access to the detention center, but were denied. That part of the story had to be illustrated in an alternate way. But how? We thought about animation, audio, and performance. Our ultimate solution of scripted scenes, performed by actors, was inspired by the activists themselves. We were watching our documentary footage of Viri’s attempt to get arrested by border patrol and it dawned on us how she was creating a kind of performance with her body - we started to see her as an ‘actor,’ in the sense of someone playing a role, and in the sense of someone impacting history. Taking our cues from the infiltrators’ themselves, we decided to depict the inside of the detention center with actors.
What are you hoping viewers will take away from The Infiltrators?
This is a film with many layers. As a work of art that blends ‘documentary’ techniques with ‘scripted’ techniques, we hope it expands what audiences think is possible with film itself. We feel like, motivated by the creativity of the activists themselves, we went into uncharted creative territory and basically invented a new form. We hope that’s exciting for viewers.
As a work of political speech, we hope the film also breaks new ground. In this country, we constantly speak about immigrants, but we have incredibly few representations of immigrants who speak for themselves, and even less of immigrants who fight back. Through our families, we know immigrants are savvy, smart, fighters. We hope The Infiltrators, as a political heist film with undocumented protagonists, introduces audiences to a new way to see the reality of the immigrant experience.
What are you working on next?
Alex is currently conducting research on surveillance and the overlap between for-profit data corporations (like Facebook and Google) and immigration enforcement. This research is inspiring work on a new screenplay in the near-future science-fiction genre.
Separately, Alex is developing a new idea for a scripted / documentary hybrid film about the origins of deportation in the late 1800s. Key legal decisions were made in the 1880s that unleashed the violent system we know today. The plot of the film will follow the immigrant who was the first to ever be targeted for deportation, and his attorney, as they prepare to make a legal argument at the Supreme Court that deportation - fundamentally - is unconstitutional. The film will use a hybrid structure to connect the past to the present. The film is in early development, but Alex is excited to make a visionary hybrid film that builds upon some of the risks taken in The Infiltrators.
Cristina is exploring a new personal project that looks at her father’s junkyard in El Paso, Texas as a metaphor to look at the wreckage from the pandemic, the racist mass shootings, the children in cages along the borderlands. She is exploring the history, trauma and legacy of the US-Mexico border to find a way forward – a next step as we attempt to rebuild our lives from so much destruction. What emerges is a portrait of a place that attempts to construct an imaginary bridge for today’s border crossers.