Give them Refuge

Short film aims to raise awareness about conditions asylum seekers face in private prisons

Refuge(e), a new short film by Sylvia Johnson, tells the stories of Alpha and Zeferino, two asylum seekers previously held at a privately owned detention facility in Cibola County in western New Mexico.

They are two of the first individuals who successfully won asylum cases with legal help from the Santa Fe Dreamers Project nonprofit, which has gone on to advocate for hundreds more. The film premieres at a sold-out event on Thursday followed by a discussion with Johnson and Dreamers Project Director Allegra Love about citizen engagement and divestment from private prisons. A second screening and discussion will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday, for which free tickets were still available at press time.

Like thousands of asylum-seekers flooding ports of entry at our southern border, Alpha and Zeferino came to the US because their lives were at risk. Both men were successful, highly educated professionals in their home countries of Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, respectively, before facing death threats and state violence in retaliation for their political activism.

The film successfully mixes traditional documentary style with illustrated watercolor animations that lend emotional depth to the depiction of personal memories such as the men's nightmarish accounts of trekking through the Central American jungle and their experiences in the Cibola County Correctional Center. The result is a touching exposé of the horrors that might cause a person to leave everything behind, the relief of arriving at the border, and the treatment refugees face in the US immigration system.

Johnson, a Santa Fe-based filmmaker, tells SFR that these two men won their asylum cases due to clear evidence of specifically targeted state violence against them, something that is difficult for many refugees to prove.

"Being able to tell the stories of those who did get out is representative of all of the thousands of people who are still in detention or are being deported back to countries where they fear that they may be killed," says Johnson.

The Cibola County Correctional Center used to be a federal private prison run by CoreCivic, one of the nation's top corrections megacorporations. CoreCivic lost its contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2016 after a report by The Nation found that neglect and insufficient medical care resulted in at least three deaths at the Cibola facility. In 2017, CoreCivic contracted with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to reopen the facility as an ICE detention center.

Conditions remain poor. Lack of emergency medical attention resulted in the death of a trans woman in 2018. Some clients, Love tells SFR by phone, are subjected to indefinite periods of solitary confinement.

"America thinks that asylum seekers are criminals, so we treat them like criminals," says Love. Yet few of these individuals have actually committed any crimes, and Love adds that 90 percent of her clients entered the US through legal ports of entry.

The premiere of Refuge(e) also launches a campaign to divest from private prisons. The effort has recently gained national traction as JP Morgan Chase announced its divestment from the industry last week. Wells Fargo, which manages accounts for the City of Santa Fe and the State of New Mexico, has not indicated plans to divest.

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project also plans to discuss divestment strategies for both private individuals and for the city. "This is an invitation to the public to get involved," says Love. Cities such as Portland, Oregon, have successfully divested from private prisons, and the Santa Fe Dreamers Project has invited an expert from Portland to lead a divestment training on March 24.

Refuge(e) Screening and Engagement Event
4 pm Sunday March 17. Free;
tickets limited. Unitarian Universalist Church,
107 W Barcelona Road;
tickets here.

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