Illegal immigration – it is a hot topic across the country, but in 2007, it divided a county in Virginia.
In "9500 Liberty," filmmakers Eric Byler and Annabel Park chronicle the illegal-immigration clash that took place during 2007 and 2008 in Prince William's County. The film makes a limited run from July 1 to 4 at the Starz FilmCenter with Byler speaking at three of the screenings.
Prince William's County supervisors passed a law that required police officers to question, with "probable cause," people who they felt were illegally in the country. This meant the police could ask for anyone's documents regardless if they had committed a crime or not. What resulted was a heated debate between those who felt that their way of life was being taken away, and predominantly Hispanic immigrants, who felt they were unjustly targeted because of the color of their skin.
"It's exactly what happened in Arizona, but on a smaller scale," Byler said.
But instead of simply collecting footage and building a movie, Byler and Park decided to make their videos immediately available via YouTube. Their raw footage showed different points of view from a wide variety of voices through interviews and recorded public debates. By sharing the information as it happened, Byler said, they became players in the game.
"We became characters of our story we were telling," Byler said, "because our videos influenced the story."
This "interactive documentary" garnered both local and national attention, and soon they found themselves being asked by the United States Commission on Civil Rights to share their thoughts on the illegal-immigration resolution. What Byler said they discovered was that the law appeared to target Hispanics and was created by an national anti-immigration group, while being championed by far-right-wing activists.
"What happened was some very highly partisan interest used the county government as a platform for their agenda," he said. "So we had some lobbyists from Washington D.C. who had been working for decades against immigration – they're not just against illegal immigration, they're against immigration – they came to Prince William's County with legislation that's similar to SB 1070 (Arizona's new immigration law), which they also drafted. ...
"It seems small, but you would think that a county government responsible for representing that many (380,000) people would be more robust and less vulnerable to a hostile takeover from a very extreme, radical minority of people," he added.
Soon after the launch of their YouTube channel, he said, they began receiving threats.
"Annabel had e-mails from people saying they were going to lynch her," Byler said. "So we not only feared for our own lives, there are parts in this story that aren't told: Annabel and some of the female characters in this story, who all had been threatened, going into a gun shop together to go buy a gun."
Byler said he disagreed with the tactics used by the supporters of resolution, who called themselves 'Help Save Manassas,' because it supported an agenda of fear.
"It was very much with us or against us, fear politics environment," Byler said. "And because they had the chairman in their pockets, this lobbying firm and these local agitators they were able to trigger were able to drive the agenda in the county and take over the government for about six months.
"Once you create the climate of fear, and sort of a climate of political intimidation, it takes a long time for people to recognize that they have enough of a stake in the issue that they should come forward even knowing there would be retaliation."