Interactive drama “The Detention Lottery” sheds light on immigration court

An audience member is “detained” at the March 7 production of “The Detention Lottery” at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Seattle. (Photo by Abigail Leong)

“Excuse me, sir. Sorry for interrupting, but you have been detained. Please follow me.”

The man sitting next to me at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Seattle looked taken aback, but he put down his program and followed the woman over to an area marked as the cell block. A few other people were already sitting there. One woman looked like she was about to cry. In front of her sat a bespectacled child, his feet swinging far above the ground.

Most people have not sat in on a hearing in immigration court and many are in the the dark about what happens in the proceedings. Some local immigration lawyers are looking to change that.

Through her interactive theater production “The Detention Lottery,” immigration attorney Margaret O’Donnell gives audiences a rare look into the courtroom.

There are 1,327 people being detained in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, as of the most recent count by Freedom for Immigrants. All of these people will have to plead their cases, with or without representation, before an immigration judge.

At the start of O’Donnell’s play, people playing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents roam the room and “arrest” randomly selected audience members. Those selected received scripts to play eight detainees who embodied the struggles commonly experienced by immigrants facing deportation. All the non-detainee parts were played by practicing Seattle immigration attorneys, who answered audience questions after the show.

“The stories of our clients are not being heard,” said Franca Baroni, one of the attorneys who acts in the show. “If you are a U.S. citizen, there is a pretty total disconnect from the realities that an immigrant goes through. I love we can show that…open a door to an unseen world.”

The stories of the detainees in “The Detention Lottery,” vary widely. One of them is undocumented but married to a US citizen. Another is a victim of domestic violence in their home country. Another one is an unaccompanied minor. Many of these people have no attorney and almost all of the stories end in deportation.

Audience members are randomly picked to play detainees for “The Detention Lottery” at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Seattle. Immigration attorneys play the parts of the judges and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. (Photo by Abigail Leong)

Though O’Donnell first conceived of the “The Detention Lottery” in 2011, the issues that it raises are still relevant. In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 2, President Donald Trump defended his proclamation of a national emergency at the U.S. southern border.

“Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador – you think they’re giving us their best and their finest?” Trump said. “They give us some bad people…Murderers. Killers. Drug dealers. Human traffickers. … It is so sad to think how stupid we have been.”

While Trump’s speech at CPAC portrayed immigrants as violent criminals, numerous studies indicate that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. Many of the over 256,000 people who were removed from the United States last year were arrested on non-criminal charges as well.

To Luz Metz, another immigration attorney and actor in “The Detention Lottery,” the characterization of immigrants as dangerous criminals does not reflect what she sees in her practice.

“Our current government is demonizing immigrants. And it’s not true. People come to this country looking for better opportunities,” Metz said. “People come because they are suffering, because they are fleeing violence, crimes, and poverty.”

O’Donnell realized that these individual stories of crisis had the potential to touch people in a way traditional forms had failed to do for years. She created “The Detention Lottery” as a game when she realized that her PowerPoint presentations on immigration law were not making the impact she wanted to see.

Today, after turning her game into an interactive theater experience, she says can barely sit through a presentation anymore. O’Donnell said her audience now responds with emotion instead of apathy.

Audience members who are playing detainees receive their scripts and the back stories of their characters. (Photo by Abigail Leong)

At the end of the March 7 show, immigration attorney Melissa Campos asked the audience to shout out words to describe what they had just experienced.








O’Donnell said this kind of emotional response was typical of what she saw in her audiences.

“Surprise, shock, anger at the coldness of the system, complete disgust at the way that the system does not explain itself to the most vulnerable. Those were some of the most frequent reactions we got.” O’Donnell said. “And also — what can I do?”

This crucial question came up about halfway through the question and answer session at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

“What can we do about it other than screaming and yelling about how un-American this is?” one audience member asked the panel of lawyers.

According to O’Donnell, the “What can I do?” question is really the goal of the play. The immigration attorneys responded to the question with calls to vote and support their favorite local nonprofits.

Immigration attorney Melissa Campos addresses the audience during a post-show panel of “The Detention Lottery.” (Photo by Abigail Leong)

In this way, they see how theater has a powerful potential to motivate audiences to activism.

“People are so overwhelmed by information and data everyday,” Baroni said. “But when we use theater, it just moves us at a much deeper, tangible, visceral level.”

Dave Berner was one of the people who played a detainee in last June’s showing of “The Detention Lottery.” He played Crisanto Ocampo, a detainee with severe mental illness who was deported for entering a residence he confused for his own.

“Just depicting this young man gave you a sense of what it was like to be helpless,” Berner said. “Because he couldn’t defend himself; he had no idea what was going on.”

Nancy Holmes, who was in the audience at “The Detention Lottery,” is a detention center volunteer who has visited the southern border to welcome asylum-seekers. Even with her experience with immigration, seeing the show changed how she viewed the people she had welcomed.

“We would cheer them as they were coming and in our minds were thinking, ‘Yay, you’ve made it.’” Holmes said. “Seeing ‘The Detention Lottery’ really brought home what a minefield it is to navigate that asylum process.”

The way that the play illuminates the frustrations of the legal system is not only more accessible for audiences, but it also has been more rewarding for the immigration attorneys. The actors in “The Detention Lottery” described the production as a way for them to inform the public in a more collaborative and positive way.

“The burnout is a real thing in our profession,” Baroni said. “When you’re dealing day in, day out with stories with extreme levels of violence and despair, it just gets at you in time.”

She describes “The Detention Lottery” as something that helped her balance this.

“A window of lightness in our heavy practices and a way that we can make a difference that is not straining or draining our energy,” Baroni said.

“It’s just such a release to say, “Yes, everybody, this is what it’s like,’” O’Donnell said. “‘We’re not overreacting, it’s not being made up. This is what it’s like. You’ve got to see it.’”

The play did not only have a transformative effect on the audience members. “The Detention Lottery” also had some unexpected effects on the immigration attorneys as they took on the various roles of ICE agents and immigration judges.

“It helps people to understand immigrants, but it also helps people to understand the judge and the people involved in the system,” Metz said.

Immigration judges have a high risk of secondary traumatic stress and burnout — also known as “compassion fatigue” — according to a 2008 study. By experiencing the limitations of being another player in the legal process, the attorneys gained a better understanding of why the system continues to be broken, Baroni said.

“It actually deepened my empathy, compassion, and ability to be more receptive of what their needs are, and in a way respond more effectively on behalf of my clients,” she said.

The next production of “The Detention Lottery” will be at All Saints Church in Puyallup on March 28, at 7 p.m.

However, the materials for production of “The Detention Lottery” are available under a Creative Commons license on O’Donnell’s Global Law Advocates page. O’Donnell hopes that productions will reach new stages soon, to help transform the immigration conversation for more audiences.

“It’s too complicated, it’s too covert, and we need to fix this,” O’Donnell said. “It must be better explained, and people must have access to counsel.”

“In the abstract, it’s kind of interesting to observe. In the particular, it is deeply painful to observe,” she said. “These individual eight people who are in the system, this is the effect on their lives. Basically they are cast into the outer darkness, almost all of them, as the play ends.”

Listen to the audio story by Abigail Leong and Morningstar Stevenson:



  1. I saw this presentation at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church a few months ago.
    It leaves you with an empty feeling; you ask yourself, “Really? This is happening in my country to people who only want to find a better life…the same as ALL of our ancestors?”

  2. This play does the crucial work that all theater should do: remind us what have in common with other people. Once immigrants become real to us, with stories we understand, we can’t pretend they are just “bad hombres” breaking the law. Bravo to all involved in staging “The Detention Lottery”!

    Cate Wiley,

  3. This play will be performed at noon, Sunday, May 5 at Plymouth Congregational Church, 1217 Sixth Avenue, hosted by Plymouth Immigration Ministry Team.

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