An ‘ICE agent’ escorts a detainee away during an experiential performance of ‘The Detention Lottery’ at Saint Mark’s Cathedral.
An ‘ICE agent’ escorts a detainee away during an experiential performance of ‘The Detention Lottery’ at Saint Mark’s Cathedral.
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Back in 2011, playwright and immigration attorney Margaret O’Donnell wrote an educational play for Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church. With people in the church participating in it, “The Detention Lottery” presented real immigration courtroom cases to educate the community about the deportation legal system.

Seven years later, with a different administration in office and stricter deportation rules imposed, O’Donnell thought it was time to update her play.

She staged a pilot of a new version of “The Detention Lottery” at Bloedel Hall at Saint Mark’s Cathedral on Friday, June 8, with the same purpose as before: to show an audience what happens inside an immigration courtroom—with ICE agents, an immigration judge and detainees’ family members included—through the cases of real people facing deportation.

“I’m a playwright and a storyteller, so when you tell a story in a dramatic fashion, people relate and say, ‘No, that cannot happen to that person,’ ” said O’Donnell, an immigration attorney for Global Law Advocates. “We have people who are very well educated but just can’t believe that this is the way our immigration system works. So I knew that an immerse theater experience that explains that this is true, this is how it works, this is not just fiction, this is what happens, is the most powerful way to show this reality.”

The play presents eight cases of people who were detained and faced deportation, including a 25-year-old Filipino with schizophrenia who came to the U.S. as a permanent resident as a teenager, a Russian sous-chef working at a restaurant in Tacoma who came to this country as a child with a visitor visa looking for his American father, and a 62-year-old Korean woman who is already a permanent resident and has three American children, but who is also under federal investigation for purchasing and distributing an opioid to treat severe sciatic nerve pain. For seven of the cases, attendants in the audience were selected randomly to perform the roles before the piece started.

“It was surprisingly tough for me; the whole time I felt that it was so wrong,” said Daniel Nelson, who played the role of the Tacoma sous-chef looking for his father in the U.S. “The play is really powerful for developing empathy. One thing is to know about this topic intellectually, and another is to be the real human in a courtroom.”

Director Oksana Bilobran agrees.

“When people are put in the shoes of other people and they have to go through that experience, that’s going to stick with them a lot more than hearing legal terms or hearing something in the radio,” said Bilobran, an immigration attorney for Refugee Women’s Alliance.

Biloban, O’Donnell and the other lawyers thought that they should keep the most powerful case at the end to leave a lasting impact on their audience—a Honduran 8-year-old whose mother hired a smuggler to take the child from her homeland to the Texas border. The mother was murdered in Honduras while trying to escape from her partner, an abusive gang member. Already in the U.S., the child has no relatives, and is arrested by ICE agents. Although the Office of Refugee Resettlement takes care of the infant at the beginning, she cannot be released and now faces deportation.

Because the experience of portraying an infant facing deportation could have been too traumatic for a regular child, Bilobran’s daughter performed this role. In coordination with the group, the director decided that her child should participate in “The Detention Lottery,” as she is familiar with her mother’s job.

“We debated whether we should have a child detainee or not, especially because this is supposed to be an immigration court for people who are detained, and children are usually not detained,” Bilobran said. “We thought that legally it might make no sense, but we thought it was going to be a strong case to present, especially considering all the news about [undocumented immigrants being separated from their children] in the Southern border.”

Another powerful statement of this staging of “The Detention Lottery” is that women played nine out of the 10 main characters, and eight volunteering actresses were either immigrants or first-generation Americans.

O’Donnell said that diverse institutions approached her after the performance to discuss the possibility of staging “The Detention Lottery” at other venues in the future and including it as part of a classroom curriculum.

The playwright also said she hoped the play would encourage the audience to speak up, attend immigration trials, and state clearly on letters to news outlets and senators that this abuse of power should not be tolerated.

“The lesson I hope people get is that we can’t keep this immigration enforcement system quiet and covert and byzantine anymore,” O’Donnell said. “People have to see what it’s really like being in an immigration courtroom. If they see it, they’ll say, ‘That’s not fair. We’ve got to change that.’”