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‘America; I too’ brings immigration issues to Roxbury Film Festival

Yawu Miller | 6/28/2017, 12:21 p.m.
The 20-minute short, shot over the course of three days in March, tells the story of three fictional undocumented immigrants ...
Anike Tourse (center) directs on the set of “America; I too.” Courtesy Anike Tourse

The day after the Nov. 8 election of Donald Trump, many immigrants across the U.S. were faced with the possibility that his threats of harsh anti-immigrant policies would become a reality.

“There was a lot of shock and fear,” recalls Los Angeles-based actor and director Anike Tourse.

That day Tourse, who was raised in Newton, received a phone call from the California-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles requesting that she write and direct a short film illustrating the challenges undocumented immigrants face — and the rights they have — when they’re arrested or detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Anika Tourse portrays attorney Sara Garcia, here consulting with Ahmed (Barkhad Abdi).

Anika Tourse portrays attorney Sara Garcia, here consulting with Ahmed (Barkhad Abdi).

Myeong (Linda Yim) at work in a sweatshop prior to an ICE raid.

Myeong (Linda Yim) at work in a sweatshop prior to an ICE raid.

As the weeks passed, the project got bigger. CHIRLA pulled in HBO Vice President John Murchison to assist Tourse in editing her script.

“It had to be a story,” says Tourse. “We went back and forth to develop the script.”

The 20-minute short, shot over the course of three days in March, tells the story of three fictional undocumented immigrants caught up in ICE raids: a Mexican teenager, a Somali pizza deliveryman and a Korean seamstress who is the sole caregiver for her autistic granddaughter. The film depicts their struggles as they confront scenarios drawn from real stories of former detainees who have worked with CHIRLA.

In Tourse’s film, “America; I Too,” those real-life experiences convey the inhumanity of ICE raids and the detention facilities where the undocumented workers are held, sometimes for years. ICE agent Michaels, portrayed by Randolph-born actor Keston John, barks at teenager Manny, portrayed by Jose Diaz, accusing him of gang affiliation and ordering him to sign a deportation order. “Sign the form and you can be in Tijuana in a few hours,” he tells Manny. “Or you can sit in detention for months, and the judge is just going to deport you anyway.”

When Manny refuses, the agent grabs his hand and tries to force him to sign.

“There’s a lot of coercion that takes place when people are in detention,” Tourse says, explaining the scene. “All of the scenes were based on real stores. All of these things happened to people in detention.”

As Manny navigates detention with the help of attorney Sara Garcia, portrayed by Tourse, he asserts his rights in a way meant to empower undocumented immigrants with a knowledge of their constitutional rights. Although ICE officers are not required to inform detainees of their Miranda rights, the laws do apply, Tourse says.

“People have constitutional rights regardless of their status,” she explains. “If you’re on American soil, you have the right to remain silent. You have protection against illegal search and seizure.”

One right detainees are not entitled to is legal representation. Garcia, the public interest attorney Tourse portrays, shows the strain under which immigration lawyers labor. Pizza deliveryman Ahmed, portrayed by Somali-American actor and director Barkhad Abdi, turns to the detention facility’s law library to assert his right to remain in the United States, eventually gaining assistance from the overworked Garcia.

The short was filmed at a Lancaster, California prison facility with undocumented workers among the 270 extras portraying detainees. Tourse found the experience sobering.

“It was a really grim place,” she says. “When I first went to scout it, I was really uncomfortable.”

For the extras, the project provided a way to give hope to those who end up in detention.

“People really looked at this as a way to do something,” Tourse says. “People wanted to show that they’re not afraid.”

“America; I Too” will be featured at the Roxbury International Film Festival this Friday during a program of film shorts between 5:30 and 7:15 p.m. at the Museum of Fine Arts. Tourse will participate in a discussion following the screening, which is sponsored in part by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

“This is a powerful film with an important message for immigrants and native-born Americans alike,” says MIRA Coalition Executive Director Eva Millona. “Our democracy can only thrive if we all enjoy the rights and protections granted to us by the Constitution. We are thrilled to work with our coalition partner CHIRLA to promote ‘America; I Too,’ and encourage all who are working to advance immigrant rights to join us at the screening.”