Documentary provides inside look at COVID-19 conditions in immigrant detention

A new documentary called “The Facility,'' uses footage from a pay-per-minute video call app inside the now-shuttered Irwin County Detention Center to chronicle the experiences of migrants in the early months of the pandemic. At the time, the positivity rate in federal detention centers was 50%. The film has been shortlisted for an academy award. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As the COVID-19 pandemic raged in early 2020, U.S. Immigration courts shut down. Many of the 38,000 migrants held in federal detention centers at the time had their court dates canceled, with no indication how long they'd be waiting.

    Immigration and customs enforcement – ICE – is not required by law to detain people with pending cases, but even with the threat of transmission of the virus, most remained in detention. By the end of May, 2020, ICE had only tested about 10 percent of all detainees. But more than half of those tested positive for the coronavirus.

    Now a new documentary called "The Facility" — which is short-listed for an academy award — shows the conditions inside one detention center during the pandemic.

    NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano has more.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In 2020, investigative journalist Seth Freed Wessler used a pay-per-minute video-call app to make contact with dozens of immigrants detained inside the Irwin County private ICE detention center in Ocilla, Georgia. They were waiting for court dates to learn whether or not they could stay in the country and the Covid-19 pandemic had begun.

  • Seth Freed Wessler:

    How're you thinking about what's happening out here with this coronavirus thing?

  • Nilson Barahona-Marriaga:

    Everybody is here under a lot of stress. We see what's happening outside, how fast it's been moving, once it gets in here, we're all in complete risk.

  • Seth Freed Wessler:

    I began having these conversations intending to write print stories, including for the New York Times magazine, about what was happening in Irwin County Detention Center and in ICE detention in general during the early months of the pandemic. It struck me that there was this visual world that was emerging that I couldn't really articulate in writing I think as effectively as I realized I might be able to through film. And so I began to record all of these calls with their permission, of course, on my desktop.

  • Jubril:

    They are not practicing it, which is the social distance, the 6 feet. We are, 32 people in here. There is no way we are gonna practICE that.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    You've covered detention centers pretty extensively and having this access this inside view, how was that different in your experience?

  • Seth Freed Wessler:

    I've been reporting on ICE and immigration enforcement for years and I think the level of fear that people who are detained inside of ICE detention centers were articulating is like nothing I've ever seen before because people were being provided no information about what the virus, what this pandemic was and meanwhile offered no protections. detained people were not masked and guards weren't masking. I was watching a place that could not possibly have been safe.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Wessler used his recordings to make a film called The Facility, a production of the documentary website "Field of Vision" in partnership with the non-profit newsroom, Type Investigations.

    The film follows the stories of two detainees, Andrea Manrique and Nilson Barahona-Marriaga who were inside Irwin County during the pandemic.

  • Andrea Manrique:

    I've been at Irwin Detention Center for 11 months and it has been a living hell.

  • Nilson Barahona-Marriaga:

    My father is a citizen, my wife is a citizen, my son has been born here, my mom is a legal resident. I been here for 20 years. So what is the point of ICE having me here for?

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Marriaga flew to the US from Honduras in 1999 on a tourist visa and never left. In November of 2019, he was detained by ICE and placed inside Irwin County, where he claims conditions were unsanitary and guards demeaned migrants and casually ignored their medical concerns.

    He was released by ICE in November without explanation, he says, and is now waiting for a response to his green card application.

  • Nilson Barahona-Marriaga:

    This country, the government is willing to go and fight wars overseas, you know, to defend people's rights. But here, the United States, you know, these human rights are being violated. The truth is even without the pandemia, this was a horrible place. You wasn't treated like a human being, you know?.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Irwin County held a daily average of 754 migrants in 2020. ICE reports a total of 146 people there tested positive for Covid-19 since it began testing in February of that year.

    A coalition of immigrant rights advocates in Georgia say the number could be much higher due to what they call a lack of routine testing and reporting at the facility.

    In the documentary Marriaga and Manrique are shown participating in a hunger strike inside Irwin County demanding better protections, including mask requirements and a promise to stop bringing in new detainees.

    Manrique, seen here speaking to her lawyer, helped make a protest video that went viral.

  • Andrea Manrique:

    I don't have the right to calls, to leave the cell. I was denied the right to commissary, and I have to be isolated.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    The film alleges retaliation for the protests by the facility's staff in the form of physical abuse and solitary confinement.

    The same day Marriaga was released, Manrique says she was also released without explanation. She spoke with me via zoom from Los Angeles, California.

  • Andrea Manrique:

    I came to this country to ask for refuge and to be protected, but I felt even more threatened here. I said neither, they don't value my life here, either. My life is worth nothing here as well. And that was hard for me to believe.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Manrique is still waiting for her day in immigration court to argue her asylum case after spending 26 months in detention,19 of them inside Irwin County.

  • Andrea Manrique:

    Seeing this documentary will open your eyes, and my intention by participating in it and allowing this to come out to the world is to show a reality that is affecting many people, thousands of people whose lives are being changed for good. Before we were people in crisis with problems, and today we have many more problems and more emotional scars.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    In May, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas ordered ICE to discontinue the use of Irwin County Detention Center, saying:

    "DHS detention facilities and the treatment of individuals in those facilities will be held to our health and safety standards. Where we discover they fall short, we will continue to take action."

    The announcement came after a nurse whistleblower there alleged medical abuses, including unnecessary gynecological procedures on detained immigrant women, which prompted a federal investigation that is ongoing.

    Journalist Seth Freed Wessler hopes the documentary will shed new light on ICE, and its policy of detaining immigrants.

  • Seth Freed Wessler:

    Nearly nobody who's in ICE detention has to be detained as a matter of law. And so during the pandemic, one of the things people who were held inside were saying is let us proceed with our immigration cases from the safety of our homes. And ICE could have made the decision to do that and chose not to, for the most part during the pandemic. Part of what I hope this film does is to raise the question about whether it makes sense for ICE detention to be such a central component of the way that immigration enforcement proceeds in the United States.

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