"The first hour hits like a ton of bricks, with rapid-fire raids and the juxtaposition of the desolation on the faces of undocumented immigrants with the beaming expressions on the faces of the officers anxious to reach their quotas," says Danette Chavez of the six-part Netflix docuseries in which filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau were given unprecedented access to ICE officials, officers and the immigrants they detained. Chavez adds: "Immigration Nation could easily serve as a litany of callous and inhumane actions taken by several presidential administrations that have only been multiplied by the current one, which has overseen an unprecedented expansion of ICE, mandating the hiring of 10,000 new officers and bumping the number of detention facilities up to 220 across 47 states. But what’s even more informative—and unnerving—is how readily ICE officers compartmentalize their feelings about the morality of their work and its legality. These agents—men and women; young and middle-aged; white, brown, and Black—all carry out the same orders, but for every one that blatantly brags about nabbing collaterals, another shrugs that they do this job 'because somebody has to do it.' 'Just following orders' is a common refrain, one that’s more rationalizing rhetoric than a denial. But the insights that Immigration Nation yields, which make it an essential if grueling watch, undermine 'just following orders' as a defense."
Immigration Nation is easily the most important TV show of the year: "It’s no mystery why ICE and the Trump administration panicked over this video evidence of deception and cruelty," says Judy Berman. "Yet ultimately more disturbing, because it’s harder to dismiss as the actions of a few bad apples who may be investigated or fired, is the extent of the systemic dysfunction and delusion Immigration Nation reveals. A common refrain among ICE officers, who insist to immigrants in their charge they’re only executing decisions made by legislators and courts, is 'It’s not up to me.' (Never mind that immigration judges don’t have the same independence enjoyed by their counterparts in the judicial branch, either.) Clusiau and Schwarz don’t editorialize—a wise choice because their observations speak for themselves—but it’s wasn’t hard for me to detect echoes of Nazis who claimed to be 'just following orders' or participants in the 1960s Milgram experiments on obedience to authority, who believed they were administering painful electric shocks to peers under the direction of scientists."
Immigration Nation shows "the cruelty is the point" in America's current immigration policy: "Most of the time, what emerges is a system increasingly designed to maximize the immigrants’ suffering," says Sonia Saraiya. "(It’s worth noting that while ICE operations changed significantly under Trump, he is not the only president called to account: Immigration Nation also namechecks former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton as having laid the groundwork for the current stringent immigration policy.) A few officials interviewed in the docuseries defend child separation (a policy under U.S. Customs and Border Protection, not ICE), for example, as a harsh policy designed to be a 'deterrent.' But the administration, as embodied by former secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, has largely avoided using that term—seeing it instead as the logical punishment for a 'zero tolerance' policy. Indeed, the punishment is the goal. While watching Immigration Nation, I was repeatedly reminded of Adam Serwer’s 2018 essay, 'The Cruelty is the Point,' about the Trump administration’s most fervent motivator. As the series illustrates, it seems that the immigration process has been changed primarily to make immigration as difficult and painful as possible. Trump cannot, on his own, outlaw immigration. But he can cruelly disappoint those who dare to hope that the U.S. could be their home. It’s striking that these apparent desirables are mostly guilty only of believing they could belong in America; they’re being punished for believing in a dream.
Immigration Nation perfectly demonstrates what happens to an enforcement officer who is forced to try to justify their actions: "I couldn’t believe what I was watching," says Aymann Ismail. "The filmmakers, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, have been granted access other filmmakers could only dream of." Ismail adds: "Throughout the show, I began to realize how this job, where agents are forced to see people as inherently criminal, makes empathy impossible—I just watched as someone with empathy was reprimanded for it. But what became infuriating for me, as a child of immigrants myself, was their refusal to understand why so many are unemphatic toward them. 'I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them,' is an attitude often repeated in the show. Clusiau and Schwarz have produced a work here that perfectly demonstrates what happens to an enforcement officer who is forced to try to justify their actions. They lie, deflect, and hide from the truth: that what the work they are doing is unjustifiable."
It's more astonishing are the things ICE agents are willing to say to the cameras between round-ups and lock-downs: "I'm sure ICE isn't happy with how ICE looks in Immigration Nation, but I raise this concern: Outside of a Girls Gone Wild video, it's hard to think of any situation in which somebody already doing something bad decides to behave even worse because a camera is rolling," says Daniel Fienberg. "So either this is ICE officers on their absolute best behavior or else that's another problem ICE should be trying to fix before coming after a Netflix doc (or undocumented residents who are, otherwise, law-abiding, tax-paying members of society). Do you have any idea of how little empathy or introspection it would take for any of these officers to look like an actual hero here? I do, because if you make it to the sixth episode, there actually are two or three agents and officers who are able to articulate concerns about the process and simultaneously speak to the need for sovereign borders. You may not agree with them, but relatively speaking they look like humanitarians."
Immigration Nation demonstrates how much needlessly crueler the broken immigration system has become under Trump: "One episode follows the plight of deported veterans who served in combat units from various branches of the United States military," says Melanie McFarland. "Another examines the senseless toll that certain programs are taking on immigrants and asylum seekers prevented from reuniting with their families purely out of spite and cruelty. Yet another installment depicts the ways that immigrant labor is exploited by companies which, among other things, withhold payment for work and threaten those who challenge them with deportation. Each step shows the myriad ways that our immigration system is a labyrinthine wreck, on purpose. It is designed to ensure that immigrants seeking asylum 'the right way,' – that is to say, presenting themselves at a port of entry and asking for asylum – are unsuccessful in its most benign form, or abused to make an example of them, with the thought of being a deterrent. And it also depicts how a structure created to protect innocent lives ended up being used against the world's most vulnerable."
As its title suggests, Immigration Nation isn’t ultimately about ICE: "It’s about showing how the government exploits an immigration system that’s both broken beyond repair and constantly remolds it to work against immigrants, no matter how or why they try to come to this country," says Caroline Framke. "It combines years of footage that follows immigrants for every infuriating step of their attempted journeys to US citizenship, sometimes even embedding with their frightened families back in their countries of origin to give a more complete picture of their experience. When it introduces fathers Erin and Josue, for example, the series doesn’t stop at just showing us their obvious pain at being separated from their children. Instead, it tracks their struggles to get them back, get some work, and stay together. In following them and others through more stages of their lives rather than just showing them at their most obviously traumatic moments. And in so doing, Immigration Nation does the harder work of conveying the everyday, crushing damage of failing to achieve the American Dream, because the Americans in charge have no interest in letting you try."
The real impact of Immigration Nation's early episodes isn’t the outrage you may feel over the thuggish tactics. "It’s the wearying, demoralizing depiction of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, one that churns through the lives of people it takes little notice of — as if your trip to the D.M.V. meant not just standing in an endless line, but then being shackled and put on a plane to Central America," says Mike Hale. "The scenes inside field offices and detention centers, as agents bluffly banter with the people whose lives they’re destroying and then joke with one another about funny accents and kung pao chicken, might have been written by Kafka, except his dialogue would have been better. The series’ hallmark is not an image but a sound bite — the agents’ endless variations on 'I may not like it, but it’s the job.' The human-rights lawyer Becca Heller sums it up nicely: 'When you add up all the people just doing their job, it becomes this crazy, terrorizing system.'"
Immigration Nation reinforces a feeling of hopelessness about dealing with immigration: "Interviews with ICE agents, immigrants and traffickers yield little sense that the pattern can be broken, and conflicting statements about whether the new policies represent an effective deterrent. Instead, the final hour illustrates the human cost in those who have died in the desert, underscoring the desperation that drives them," says Brian Lowry. "The ICE agents featured seem to understand that they have an image problem, while exhibiting varying degrees of concern about that status...It's difficult looking good, though, as family members cry while loved ones are taken away, or when agents counsel those being deported to come back 'the right way,' even as the documentary illustrates how the barriers to entering legally have been raised. The agency's hardened posture is clearly embraced by some of its employees ('We're finally able to do our job'), but others exhibit little empathy and a reluctance to take responsibility."
Filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz spent 2-1/2 years embedded with ICE after signing an agreement with the agency: The agreement was meant to ensure the material they released would “be factual, and (cognizant of) sensitivities and privacy issues.” Signing it enabled them to have unprecedented access to ICE. “We would spend hours in the car with them, as they’re doing surveillance or driving from place to place,” says Clusiau. “Once you start talking to a person as a human, you start to understand more where they’re coming from in their job. And I think under this political climate and the way that things are in the nation, the ones who are boots-on-the-ground have a really hard job to do. I think a lot grapple with it. Some agree with the policies, some don’t; there’s a big spectrum there.”