By: Lily Hartmann, AI Justice Jonathan Demme Human Rights Advocate
“Who would want to come to the U.S. now?” asks Rick, a convicted former private prison manager, in his final line of playwright Robert Schenkkan’s BUILDING THE WALL. The play tells the story of an overcrowded Texas immigration detention center where a private prison company prioritizes its profits over immigrant lives. Schenkkan’s work is both a realistic depiction and a dystopic vision of the state of immigration enforcement. As Rick paints a picture of the horrid, man-made deportation machine, audience members are left to wonder which pieces of his story reflect our current reality and which imagine a tragedy years into the Trump presidency.
In a talk back that followed the play’s Miami premiere, Schenkkan said he was struck by the media’s efforts to normalize Trump’s violent rhetoric towards women and black and brown immigrant communities during the 2016 presidential election. “We had crossed the line,” the playwright reflected. As an artist, Schenkkan believes he has a responsibility to respond, to encourage truth telling and compassion, and to shed light on the stark realities of immigration today. From this sense of concern, BUILDING THE WALL emerged as a work in motion, responding to the Trump administration as it unfolds.
As the play centers on the inhumane treatment of immigrants in detention, it sends the message that the idea of Trump’s Border Wall is largely metaphorical. The ‘wall’ is really the collection of prisons, ICE agents, deportation orders, and other forms of violence against immigrants that will deter and prevent new immigrants from entering the country. It is a force that will only grow with new anti-immigration laws and attacks on the undocumented community.
Immigration advocates, lawyers, and service providers, including AI Justice’s own staff, will find this play eerily haunting and at times traumatic as it reflects on the ways the immigration enforcement system dehumanizes the undocumented. But for audience members with little knowledge of current immigration issues, BUILDING THE WALL is jarring and alarming. It begins to pull back the curtain on a deportation system largely hidden from the public eye. AI Justice’s Executive Director, Cheryl Little, commented, “The audience every evening should be full...these are things you think couldn’t happen in the U.S.” Little then shared stories about undocumented students living in fear and ICE’s neglect of immigrant detainees’ health that has resulted in life-threatening situations.
The issues of immigration enforcement discussed in this play touch upon the fears and daily challenges faced by Americans for Immigrant Justice’s clients. And so, today, October 6, AI Justice hosts a panel after the performance of BUILDING THE WALL with DREAMers directly impacted by Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. We look forward to the opportunity to share with our Miami community this powerful play as well as our own reflections on the current challenges faced by immigrants in South Florida.