Andrea Patiño Is Using Virtual Reality to Give Viewers the Experience of Living in Fear of Deportation

Young Central Americans, most fleeing gang violence and poverty, continue to enter the U.S. at near record levels. Photo by Vic Hinterlang

The White House’s hardened stance on immigration is sinister, and not just because of the xenophobia it promotes. It’s also placed uncertainty and fear into the hearts of thousands of undocumented families, who are at the mercy of complicated policies, raids and a lack of information during an especially tense time. On the heels of the election, the video team at Univision Digital News in Miami swiftly started putting together an ambitious new project of critical importance: Exploring the specific immigration policies – and lives – most at risk under the new administration through the all-seeing eye of virtual reality.

The resulting 360° video series, called In Danger of Deportation, will be screening publicly for the first time at Columbia, South Carolina’s Indie Grits festival (though the film has been available to watch on YouTube since Inauguration Day). The documentary project is a feat that a team of just six people pulled off, including visual journalist and video fellow Andrea Patiño, who’s a Visiting Artist at this year’s Indie Grits. It’s also a subject that’s inextricably a part of Patiño’s past, present and future: She herself immigrated to the United States from Bogotá, Colombia, in 2008 – save for a brief stint when she went back after her visa expired.

Patiño’s interest in keenly documenting stories of migration began during her undergraduate studies at Duke University, where she majored in cultural anthropology. There, Patiño says she was electrified by the possibilities brought up in the class, particularly the ones focused on visual approaches to anthropology. “You would deconstruct every concept and then rebuild it, and it made you think very critically and the way you can see a world,” Patiño tells Remezcla. “And I think that was the case for photography as well: I was very interested in the idea of framing and what’s out of the frame and what’s hiding…so much of what you could tell and read from an image or from a movie from the way it’s edited. It tells you a lot about the person who’s doing it and the cultural and social context in which it was produced. It’s the idea that things are never produced in a void. They’re always part of a larger context.”

While at Duke, Patiño spent a summer in the West Bank documenting the work of the NGO Tomorrow’s Youth Organization in Palestine, and worked with undocumented immigrants in Apopka, Florida. Following graduation, Patiño spent a year as a Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow in Lynn, Massachusetts, working on a multimedia project charting the stories of refugees and immigrants in the vibrant community, where roughly 30% of the population was born outside of the United States. At UNC Chapel Hill, where she did her master’s in journalism, she started focusing more on video as a platform for storytelling and graduated this past May. She’s been at Univision since the fall.

While Patiño has ample experience working in the visual realm, particularly within the context of immigration, In Danger of Deportation was a first, in many ways. It’s the first time Patiño (and Univision, for that matter) had worked on a 360° storytelling project, which posed its own kinds of issues as far as subtitling and the filmmaking itself went. “There was a lot of troubleshooting to do and we were learning how to use the cameras which, to be fair, were pretty easy to use,” Patiño says. “But it involves a very different process because, first of all, when you’re shooting, you have to leave the camera and run and hide – and that was really strange and very different.”

Patiño is quick to say that the biggest obstacle to the project stemmed precisely from the election, though. On the heels of the upset decision, undocumented individuals (understandably) kept mum about their immigration status within the United States. “There was a lot of production involved with the project because finding stories was difficult and also because the stories we were looking for were very specific,” Patiño remembers. “So we spent a lot of time on the phone. I remember feeling very frustrated because we would…make hundreds of phone calls. You either wouldn’t hear back or people wouldn’t want to talk and it felt, for a couple of weeks, we weren’t going anywhere.”

Finding the hyper-specific stories embodying five kinds of immigration policies at risk also proved tough. Those stories include the likes of Parole in Place, a program where immediate and undocumented family members of those serving in the United States military can apply for permanent residency – and it’s one that could very well change under Trump. Another includes DACA, the program established under the Obama Administration that let people who arrived as children to the United States appeal for a “consideration of deferred action for a period of two years,” and makes them eligible to work.

Eventually, she found a handful of people who were willing to share their lives on camera. As a result, what we see in In Danger of Deportation is strikingly quotidien: We walk through people’s homes as they feed their children, sweat with them in the hot sun as they tend to the land, and bite our nails, too, as they are at the mercy of lawyers and officials, who decide whether or not they can stay in the country. One such story concerns a woman named Diana, who received a deportation order by ICE five years ago. Her case was deemed low-priority, though, and was put on the back burner. Every year, she meets with ICE, appeals her deportation and renews her work permit. Through this, we also learn about who she left behind, and the dehumanizing consequences that deportation carries with it. “Before election day I was very tense, worried,” she says in the video. “Thinking what to do. How would we survive if we had to go back?”

Virtual reality is often described as an “empathy machine.” And while Patiño is hesitant to describe 360° (and In Danger of Deportation) that way, she does say that the idea of putting people directly into the lives of undocumented citizens is aimed with the question of relatability in mind, and also, frankly, understanding a series of policies often muddled in legal jargon. “I felt so lost thematically trying to figure it out,” Patiño says. “There were so many policies and so many laws and so many complications of the immigration system, and being able to see it and understand a little bit of the policies and what’s going on a political level through someone’s personal level…that’s also part of it: What are all these policies and things people are talking about, how do they truly affect people? What does it mean for someone when these things are interrupted or cancelled?”

If you have a Google Cardboard, then strap it on and check out the immersive virtual look at the lives of undocumented immigrants in these videos.

To fully explore the series we recommend you use Google Cardboard or any other VR headset. If you don’t have one, simple use your phone and headphones and watch the videos through the YouTube app. You can explore each scene by moving your phone.

Indie Grits runs April 20-23, 2017 at The Nickelodeon Theater in Columbia, South Carolina.