Maximum cruelty has always been the directive behind ICE (Immigration Customs and Enforcement), the monstrous federal apparatus created in 2003 to terrorize undocumented communities under the pretense of protecting the public. Throughout its six hour-long episodes, Netflix’s documentary series “Immigration Nation,” from Shaul Schwarz (“Narco Cultura”) and Christina Clusiau (“Trophy”), provides access into the inner workings of the infamous agency while juxtaposing a myriad of perspectives on the issue.
Gut-wrenching right from its opening sequence, the ambitious project follows agents out in the field, deportations officers, and border patrol personnel for three years (from February 2017 to February 2020) as they carry out operations to arrest and process people across the country. Ranging from absolute callousness to nonchalant decisiveness, the connecting tissue between all of them is how they’ve rationalized evil as necessary or as simply following the law—a task made easier under the nightmarish Trump presidency.
It’s well documented that deportations increased under the Obama administration, but those numbers grew exponentially as a result of Trump’s racist and xenophobic agenda. Not only did his inhumane “Zero-Tolerance” policy result in hundreds of family separations at the border, but his overall hateful stance has given ICE free range to target non-criminal individuals to fulfill removal quotas.
Emboldened to dehumanize, ICE employees on screen mock and taunt detainees as they salivate at the thought of more apprehensions. There’s obvious power-hunger and nationalist righteousness in the rationale of many who choose hunting fellow human beings as their line of work. Most express no remorse for the suffering they’ve caused and wash their hands of any negative consequences by reiterating they are only doing their job. That position makes it all the more ironic when they appear virulently irked at being equated with Nazis.
Once we witness their despicable behavior and practices, it becomes evident why just a few days ago the agency threatened legal action against the directors’ production company. Keep in mind these men and women knew they were being filmed. If this is them on their “best behavior,” putting on a show for a documentary, how much more atrocious is what happens away from the limelight? Even if Schwarz and Clusiau hoped to humanize their side of the story playing devil’s advocate, ICE does a great job at confirming they are the villains we always knew they were.
In an effort to persuade viewers who lack sympathy for immigrants, the program barters in extreme experiences. Understandably, the filmmakers chose to focus on “undeniable” characters that would make it difficult even for most GOP hardliners to be against: César, an undocumented Marine veteran who was deported despite his service, Carlos Perez who was a police officer in El Salvador and escaped persecution, or Deborah Jane, a Ugandan refugee who’s spent years trying to have her children by her side.
The point being, “if these perfect candidates for compassion are not allowed to live in this country or a path to amend their status, what can everyone else expect?” Strategically, it makes sense, but it must also be noted that a person shouldn’t need to fit one these truly dire cases to warrant basic human rights or to have the opportunity to pursue a better life.
That leads to one of the most infuriating episodes, “The Right Way,” which deals with the absurd myth that Americans would welcome immigrants if they came here in a way they deem appropriate. But the notion that anyone would prefer to venture into a potentially deathly journey across multiple countries or/and the desert if there was an easier way is ridiculous. Those who preach the empty “right way” mantra don’t care to point there’s no feasible, legal way for most working-class people to come work or live in the United States. Even the lawful avenue of requesting asylum has been willfully turned almost impossible to attain.
As it zigzags between the heartbreaking testimonials of Central American fathers ripped apart from their children to Stefania, a fearless young activist fighting the 287(g) program in Charlotte, North Carolina (which forces local law enforcement to collaborate with ICE), “Immigration Nation” paints a grim picture of a country eager to deter incomers by any means necessary, whether it’s pushing people in the desert to more hazardous areas or causing irreparable emotional harm.
Hypocritically, the concept of legality is only applied to Americans’ convenience, as the episode set in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael proves. Undocumented immigrants rebuilt Panama City, Florida, one of the most devastated cities in Florida, but then were victims of wage theft. Undocumented lives are good enough to die in battle for this country and to provide indispensable labor after a disaster, but not to access any of the benefits that should come with working hard. In the eyes of bigots, our lives are disposable, lesser than, utterly unimportant. Thankfully, the co-directors included the advocacy organization Resilience Force, whose mission is to organize workers to demand their rights.
Considering the sheer number of participants and narratives angles in multiple locations, resulting in 1000 hours of footage, the collaboration between the directors and the four editors (Andrey Alistratov, Jay Arthur Sterrenberg, Christopher K. Walker, and James Morrison) to construct the six-part series must have been a titanic effort. As taxing to watch as it is, one can appreciate the quality and purposeful vision of the craftsmanship. While there are static interviews, a large portion of the footage was capture as tense situations unfolded. That perpetual immediacy, both with victims and executioners, compels us to grasp the gravity of this moral problem as a whole.
Having said that, an unforgivable omission in this expansive series is how it avoids engaging with the history of immigration in this country, especially with the United States’ responsibility in the crises, particularly in Latin America, that have been catalysts for the massive exodus of people from their homelands. There’s no mention of the bracero program implemented in the 1940s, the American involvement in Central America, which prompted civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua; or how the Mexican cartels obtain their weapons in the U.S. since buying them is illegal for civilians in Mexico.
In the final episode, anthropologist Jason De León mentions how, in the early 1990s, NAFTA crushed Mexico’s economy pushing more people to migrate. This major chapter of the U.S./Mexico relationship is treated as a throwaway line rather than being explored in depth. It’s disingenuous to make a project about immigration without addressing the historical context. By not digging into these relevant events in the recent past, the U.S. continues to be absolved—in the eyes of most Americans who have no idea about any of this—of its culpability in the economic and political woes of the region.
There’s also no mention of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), other than one of the subjects noting she didn’t qualify for it. Instead of using the platform to show how much DACA recipients have contributed to American society, and how many more would be able to if Trump hadn’t rescinded the Obama-era program in 2017 or if requirements had been more inclusive from the onset, Clusiau and Schwarz deliberately ignore such a pivotal piece of the conversation.
Of course, not every facet of such a convoluted topic could fit within the limited time on hand, but these specific oversights feel like a notable flaw for a non-fiction production meant to elucidate the matter.
In spite of its pitfalls, “Immigration Nation” reaffirms the need to dismantle the agency, even if, based on an interview included in the series’ press notes, Schwarz insinuates he doesn’t believe ICE should be completely abolished or that people shouldn’t enter “through the window instead of through the door.” His personal views notwithstanding, what he and Clusiau decided to ultimately feature in the episodes acts as damning proof of the machinations fueling the campaign of inhumanity.
Anyone who claims to care about immigrant lives—and for whom this content is not triggering on a personal level—should make an effort to watch this series from beginning to end, but not see is as the definitive document on the subject. Those of us directly affected by these policies already know many the horrors portrayed first-hand, hopefully, this serves as a deep-dive introduction to our plight so that others can join us in the fight. Needless to say, abolish ICE. [B-]
“Immigration Nation” is available on Netflix now.