On Tuesday, the Miami Film Festival will show a documentary that made international waves when it debuted in January. With a mix of on-camera interviews and reenacted scenes, “The Infiltrators” tells the tale of two brazen young activists who purposely got arrested and sent to a for-profit immigration detention center in Florida so they could expose alleged wrongdoing there.
Claudio Rojas is one of the film’s stars. As an inmate at that Florida facility in 2012, the undocumented immigrant was the inside man on their audacious plan. He eventually won his own release, in part because of a headline-grabbing hunger strike.
But Rojas won’t be able to catch the film’s South Florida debut, because last week, he was once again arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Rojas’s attorney doesn’t think the timing of his latest detention is a coincidence.
“I definitely think it’s retaliation,” Sandy Pineda told The Washington Post on Sunday. “For them to take this stance and to just arrest him so suddenly for no apparent reason, it’s very unusual.”
ICE officials didn’t immediately return messages about Rojas on Sunday. Records from the agency confirm that as of Sunday night, he was being held at the Krome Service Processing Center, a jail in southwest Miami-Dade County on the edge of the Everglades.
Rojas’s detention is the latest high-profile arrest that has raised allegations that ICE purposely targets outspoken immigrants, a tactic critics say is meant to strike fear into the undocumented community. ICE has repeatedly said that its arrests are not politically motivated.
Long before his latest turn on the big screen, Rojas was a loud voice for the rights of undocumented immigrants. The 53-year-old Argentine first came to the United States on a 90-day visa in 2000, his attorney said. His wife and two sons joined him two months later and the family settled in Miami, where Rojas worked as a laborer and landscaper.
He first ran afoul of immigration authorities in 2010, when a judge sent him and his son to the Broward Transitional Center, a sprawling facility in Pompano Beach that’s run by the for-profit GEO Group. A judge allowed him a chance to voluntarily return to Argentina, the Miami Herald reported, but he refused and was arrested again in 2012. He started a hunger strike in that same year that led to protests at the office of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
In July 2012, Rojas ended up at the heart of the caper documented in “The Infiltrators.” At the time, he was again stuck in the Broward Transitional Center, which held only nonviolent immigrants. Most, like Rojas, had no record, which his attorney saw as grounds for his release under an order from the Obama administration that ICE focus on prosecuting immigrants who had been convicted of crimes or who otherwise posed a grave security risk. The 2011 directive became known as the “Morton memo,” after John Morton, then the director of ICE.
Rojas was “kind of a natural organizer,” as described on a 2013 episode of NPR’s “This American Life" about his work. So he started talking to dozens of other detainees and collecting information about others who also had no criminal record and who, he believed, should be released under the Obama policy.
As his efforts expanded, the detainee’s son contacted the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, an activist group. Two of its organizers, Marco Saavedra and Viridiana Martinez, conspired to get themselves arrested and sent to the Broward facility to advance the efforts begun by Rojas. In Saavedra’s case, this meant presenting himself to a border agent at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Rojas didn’t know they were coming. The only hint was a call from his son telling him that a surprise was on the way. The next morning, a visitor was announced.
“I know your son,” Saavedra told him, according to the radio segment.
“And that’s when we began to work,” Rojas recalled. “We didn’t waste a second.”
Rojas began showing the young activist around the center, introducing him to its orange-clad denizens. They interviewed about 600 inmates, one at a time, seeking to identify the most compelling cases for release under the Morton memo. (Rojas worked directly with only Saavedra because the facility is separated by gender.) They asked about criminal records and lengths of stay in the country. They inquired about wives and children.
They relayed that information to advocates on the outside, who worked to verify the information. If the details checked out on a sympathetic case, the alliance mounted a public campaign for the inmate’s release. And back on the inside, Saavedra and Martinez — the two plants — were arming inmates with the contact information of advocates, giving them the ability to make their own cases to the outside world.
So many calls came in that the alliance set up a multistate hotline to handle the deluge of requests. All of a sudden, a network of young activists, working 16-hour days to compensate for their relative lack of experience, had sprung up to provide the counsel that the detainees lacked.
After three weeks, Saavedra and Martinez went public with their operation in a pair of interviews on Spanish-language television, telling of how they had intentionally gotten locked up. They were quickly booted from the facility.
But the detainees they left behind had been activated. That weekend, they began a hunger strike to call attention to their continued incarceration, despite having records that hardly differed from those of the two activists.
Rojas told “This American Life” that the tactic worked. ICE brought in more case workers to examine the status of Broward inmates. One of those inmates was Rojas, who was released about a month after the activists had been ejected.
They claim to have taken on about 150 cases, succeeding in freeing 40 to 60 people. According to “This American Life,” ICE maintains that their activities had no effect — that those who were released would have been set free under ordinary circumstances. Rep. Ted Deutch (D), whose Florida district includes parts of Broward, wasn’t satisfied by that explanation, addressing a letter to ICE in the fall of 2012 demanding a “case-by-case” review of each inmate at the private detention center.
Rojas said he was never told why he had been handed his freedom, which has now been withheld again.
Pineda, his attorney, said his latest detention came last Wednesday when he presented himself for a routine check-in with ICE. She said agents offered no reason for his arrest.
Rojas is pursuing a T visa, which is available to victims of human or labor trafficking or their families. In fact, he was scheduled to interview with the Labor Department on Monday about his case, she said.
Now, she said, “there’s a huge chance they can deport him. And if they deport him, his case is over,” because the T visa is available only to immigrants already in the United States.
Rojas knew that advocating for other undocumented immigrants could put a target on his back, Pineda said. “But Claudio felt he had no choice," she added. "He had to stand up for all these other people.”