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Watch: This Short Documentary Offers a Rare, Powerful Glimpse Into Immigration Detention

8 minute read

A harrowing new documentary, “The Facility,” follows the lives of immigrants detained in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities across Georgia from March to November 2020 as they fight for their own protection from COVID-19, as well as their dignity under U.S. law.

Most of the documentary was filmed remotely, through a video conferencing app, offering viewers a rare glimpse into daily life inside ICE detention centers. The film focuses primarily on the stories of two immigrants, Nilson Barahona-Marriaga and Andrea Manrique, who employ acts of civil disobedience, like hunger strikes, to fight for their own release from detention and for protection from COVID-19.

Director Seth Freed Wessler, a former reporting fellow at Type Investigations and now an investigative reporter at ProPublica, has for more than a decade reported on U.S. criminal justice and immigration systems. (The Facility is a Field of Vision production, in partnership with Type Investigations and Rayuela Films.) Wessler’s work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Reveal, This American Life and others. Wessler made the film to document the lives of people navigating immigrant detention during a pandemic, and in doing so revealed apparent negligence within ICE-operated health systems.

The film was shot in part inside Irwin County Detention Center, an ICE facility in Ocilla, Georgia that made headlines in 2020 after a nurse working there alleged that a gynecologist had performed unwanted or unnecessary procedures on women without their fully informed consent. She accused doctors of performing unwanted hysterectomies on detained immigrant women. In May, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would close the center. A federal investigation and a class action lawsuit are ongoing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You began filming your documentary before the Irwin County Detention center made headlines last year. What originally drew you to that facility?

I was corresponding with people in prisons and ICE detention centers all over the place, but I had developed a few sources inside of the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia for separate stories. I began making calls using this video call app to people I had already connected with at the Irwin County Detention Center in order to try to figure out what was happening there as the pandemic was spreading.

What started to become clear to me as I was making these calls through this video app was that I was also observing what it was like inside of that place. I mean, I would sit on a call with one of the people who I’d built a source relationship with and would start to recognize people walking in the background, or would notice that at certain times of day certain television shows were playing on the screen above their heads, or would notice that at certain times of day in the background I would hear prayers, people singing, holding kind of like church. And that’s what pushed me to make something that was a visual story, to try to help viewers walk into that place to be able to get a sense of what it is like, what it might be like, to be detained inside of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.

I write about immigration regularly and watching this film was cathartic because a lot of these facilities exist in these very remote parts of the country and journalists hardly have access to them.

These are places—detention centers and prisons in general—that are not meant to be seen. That’s their purpose, to keep people locked inside and to keep people outside away from those people. I’ve been to the town where the Irwin County Detention Center is as a reporter over the years and I’ve never been inside. I think what this video call app did was open up the possibility of, to some extent, stepping inside without actually being there physically.

Prior to this, most of your work was written—news and magazine articles. Why tell this story through video?

I felt that a written story wouldn’t communicate what I was experiencing visually. I spent hundreds of hours on video calls, reporting on what was happening in ICE detention with the two central people in the film, Nilson and Andrea, but also with many others, and as a result, things happened. I was sitting there [watching] when guards would walk into the cellblock, and in some cases, those guards would walk in and wouldn’t be wearing masks. And that was a significant thing to notice as a reporter, and the visual medium makes it possible to understand what that looks like. There are these televisions on the walls of the detention center and I was just struck by what was appearing on those television screens. I mean, in many ways, it was the same stuff that I would see if I turned on the television at my apartment. But, you know, there was a kind of dissonance that emerged between these images of happy people, advertisements for products or political campaign ads professing a vision of the American dream, or a kind of aspirational idea of America inside of a detention center where people were really suffering quite terribly.

One of the themes running throughout the film is about how immigrants are treated as criminals. Why do we put immigrants in these prison-like facilities when they have not actually been convicted of a crime, but are waiting for their immigration cases to be decided? Did you raise that question intentionally?

Yeah. ICE detention is in many ways unique in that in almost every case people who are detained by [ICE] are detained at the discretion of ICE itself. ICE does not actually have to detain nearly anybody who it holds in immigration detention. ICE detention, at least as a legal matter, is not supposed to be punishment for the violation of a crime. Rather, it’s civil detention used to hold people while they’re waiting for a court hearing. There are many alternatives to detaining people who are going through these processes.

What’s really striking when I speak with people who are in ICE detention is that people don’t know—as was the case for Nilson and Andrea—they absolutely do not know if and when they will be released. So what we’ve got, effectively, is a detention system that can be indefinite and can also feel entirely arbitrary because some people are held and other people are not. And that’s a terrifying kind of system for anybody who’s held inside of it.

So then came this breaking national news about the gynecologist at the Irwin County Detention Center. There’s this quote in the film by Andrea who says “something catastrophic had to happen for people to notice us.” How did that news, and its aftermath, affect the people in your story?

The allegations were traumatic and awful [and] made more news than I think ICE detention has ever made—or at least in my more than a decade of reporting on this system. And on the one hand, that makes a tremendous amount of sense. On the other hand, people who were held inside of Irwin knew that various kinds of medical neglect, really troubling medical care and, in some cases, deadly medical neglect, are routine in an ICE detention context.

I think there was a sense [among detainees] that like, look, we’ve been trying to blow the whistle on various kinds of experiences of terror inside of these places for a long time. Why did it take this particular kind of allegation for people to start paying attention?

Can you give us an update on your main subjects, Nilson and Andrea? How are they now?

Both Nilson and Andrea were released from ICE detention and they are both, in many ways—and I think they would say this too—trying to heal from that experience. What happened to each of them inside of that place produced harm that does not just disappear when they walk out of the doors. In both of their cases, their experience of detention activated them to become organizers. So they’re both trying to figure out ways to advocate for the rights of people who are detained.

Nilson is pursuing a green card, which he will almost certainly get through his wife who’s a United States citizen. He very likely will become a U.S. citizen in a certain number of years and that was always likely to be the case, and that was one of the things that made him feel like his detention was in some ways, absurd. He spent nearly a year locked in an ICE detention center.

Andrea is fighting in a U.S. court for asylum. It will be a long and protracted process. She’s living with her husband in the U.S. and trying to proceed with her life.

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Write to Jasmine Aguilera at jasmine.aguilera@time.com