Refuge(e) traces the incredible journey of two refugees who each fled violent threats to their lives in their home countries and presented themselves at the US border asking for political asylum, only to be incarcerated in for-profit prison for months on end.


Alpha and Zeferino's stories left an emotional imprint on our students and gave them tangible stories that brought to life the statistics and migration concepts they were learning about. Refuge(e) provided students with a powerful and palpable human story on a topic that is often desensitized by political jargon in the media. The film will no doubt inspire deep and meaningful conversations in your classroom about the reality of seeking political asylum in the US.

AP Human Geography & Social Studies Department Chair, Muscatine High School

Alpha and Zeferino each fled violent threats to their life in their home countries, made the long, dangerous trip across most of the Western hemisphere to the US/Mexico border, and presented themselves at the border asking for political asylum only to be incarcerated in a for-profit prison in Cibola County, New Mexico for months on end. They represent thousands more like them who can't tell their stories, and their fight for freedom and the right to live calls into question the nature of our immigrant detention system.


“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.”

GIVE THEM REFUGE: Santa Fe Reporter, March 2019

“While Johnson’s work tackles huge issues, it is also visually stunning. The rich textures, intentional palettes, and movement of her documentary films are often hypnotic... Watercolor animations by illustrator Austin Blasingame appear throughout Refuge(e), for example, adding gravity and yet softening the intense story, which follows two men whose journey culminates in a six-month stint in a private prison, the Cibola County Correctional Center.”

Of Land & Sea: Sylvia Johnson’s Activist Documentaries: The Pasatiempo, October 2019
Director's Commentary: 

I first went to the Cibola County Correctional Facility in March 2017 shortly after it opened to house immigrants and was completely stunned by what I saw there. The facility had been closed in October of 2016 after losing its prison contract because the conditions were so bad that there had been several inmate deaths. It reopened in February 2017 under a new contract run by CoreCivic (formerly Correctional Corporation of America), the same for-profit prison company that had previously been running it - same facility, same conditions, same guards, same everything, but this time to house detained immigrants. The large majority of the immigrants held there are refugees who presented themselves at a port of entry asking for asylum and who are not in violation of any law. No man, woman, or child deserves to be incarcerated for seeking refuge when their lives are in danger. In fact, it is in direct violation of international human rights agreements that state that all people have the right to seek asylum in another country and that detention on the basis of asylum is explicitly prohibited.

Over months of going to the Cibola facility, I befriended some of the detained immigrants. Many of them were from or had passed through countries on their journey that I lived in as a child - El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, or that I have lived in as an adult - Brazil and Mexico. I could relate to and visualize their journeys in a powerful, visceral way, and as an immigrant to this country myself, I couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like to be incarcerated upon arriving here.  Alpha and Zeferino were among the first to win their asylum cases and be released from Cibola, thanks to legal representation from the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. I knew that they would want to tell their stories, and I felt that the American public needed to see and understand what is happening out there. Their stories represent those of thousands more like them - from all walks of life - who are not able to tell their stories because they are either still incarcerated, have since been deported, or didn’t survive the journey to safety. In the months since this facility first opened, there has been a rapid escalation in the detention of immigrants. There are currently 50,000 immigrants incarcerated in detention facilities nationwide - the largest number ever in this country - and 70% of them are held in for-profit prisons.  Alpha and Zeferino were lucky to have legal representation and to have their cases determined in front of the Denver immigration court which has a 60% asylum case approval rate. Since their release, all of the asylum cases at Cibola have been transferred to the El Paso immigration court, which has a miniscule 1% approval rate. It is my hope that this film helps to illuminate what our country is currently doing to refugees and to remove the veil from the ways in which many of us - unknowingly, unwittingly, and unwillingly - are complicit in the financial systems that make these facilities possible. We all have a role to play in dismantling systems that prioritize profit over life and in building new models that are humane and allow for thriving, diverse communities.

Sylvia Johnson, Director