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Mini documentary highlights the dangers of COVID-19 for those in ICE detention

As if opening a visual letter addressed to immigration officials, the detainees at Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield raise concern for their health and share how they are connected to the outside world in the opening scene of the short documentary. 

“We are fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, and even grandfathers of American Citizens,” the documentary Coronavirus in ICE Detention Centers begins, verbally signed by those detained in Mesa Verde Dorm C.

Created by the nonprofit Define American, the short documentary is a call for officials to allow these men to safely quarantine at home while they wait to have their cases heard because the environment at the detention center is not safe.

“These folks are asking for their humanity to be respected. Their rights to be respected,” said Deyci, 24, a immigration paralegal at Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland who represents detainees at Mesa Verde, who requested to only use her first name.

Asif Qazi, 31, a current detainee at Mesa Verde, shared that the expectations of the facility are that detainees practice social distance while sharing small quarters. 

“They are dirty [referencing the living space at Mesa Verde],” Qazi said. “And unsanitary with positive cases of COVID-19 on staff and detainees.” 

During Qazi’s interview with El Tecolote, Qazi mentioned that the officer on the floor was not wearing a mask, and only began to wear one five minutes into the interview.

Mesa Verde declined to comment.

Qazi took part in the documentary because he felt the need to bring awareness to what was happening. Like Qazi, Shauna Siggelkow, 31, head of original content at Define American, felt that the stories pouring out of Mesa Verde were so important and there wasn’t much coverage on the topic.

A project prior to COVID-19 would consist of Siggelkow making contact with the subject and setting up the idea for the project. For this project, she did just that and then passed it on for further creative process to William Johnston-Carter, video and graphics editor at Define American. Johnston-Carter did the interviews and put the piece together.

But Coronavirus in ICE Detention Centers differed from other projects prior to COVID-19. With the pandemic in full swing, scouting locations and meeting with people—things that really allow one to get to know someone’s world—were not possible. In the case of this documentary, everything was done remotely and the b-roll was collected from other sources.

Both Johnston-Carter and Siggelkow expressed how the documentary cuts across so many issues such as race, criminal justice and immigration. Because it would be featured for an online audience, a 16-minute video seemed ideal, which limited the amount of information that could be included. 

“Wish I could have emphasized a little bit more the local organizing that is happening in Bakersfield,” Johnston-Carter said. “There are these really incredible groups of local people in the area, there is this current Kern youth abolitionists movement and there is also California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance.”

The film also creates a clear visual of a COVID-19 timeline. Described as a talking-head and b-roll style by Siggelkow, the interviews provide this self-recording, almost facetime feel to them. A piece that should be submitted at film festivals.

The urgency to complete the project was on Siggelkow’s mind, knowing it was important to get it out sooner than later. Yet neither Carter or Siggelkow lost sight of the importance of the project. They always wanted to tell the story as best and as authentic to the subject as possible. 

Coronavirus in ICE Detention Centers premiered July 16, 2020. On Aug. 6, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria ordered that every one at Mesa Verde be tested for COVID-19. On Aug. 18, the Bakersfield Californian reported that 54 of the 104 detained people at Mesa Verde tested positive for COVID-19.

“There are lives at stake,” said Siggelkow. “These detainees don’t need to be detained. They could all be free right now.”  

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