Netflix’s ‘Immigration Nation’ Journeys Into the World of ICE and Its Enforcement of Harsh Deportation Policies

In the future viewers may look aghast at Netflix’s “Immigration Nation.” This six-part ICE docuseries puts faces and intimate details to the headlines. It is hard to grasp the human suffering and dimensions of the United States’ current immigration policy. Most of us have heard Trump’s rambling speeches about the wall, or seen the wrenching news footage of migrant families separated at the border. But in this sprawling work the complexity of the situation, and the lives of those caught in it, is laid bare. A bureaucrat will process paperwork, coldly admitting they just block out the human component, while a detained migrant will weep because he has no idea where his son is.

Directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz are allowed unprecedented access to immigrants facing the government’s deportation procedures and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents charged with hunting them down. This docuseries almost needs to be described in individual moments to convey its lasting effect. ICE agents knock on apartment doors late in the evening, a dazed migrant from Central America will groggily face arrest and having to say goodbye to stunned family members. In another episode Latino veterans, despite having served in the U.S. armed forces for years, suddenly face deportation after discharge. What ICE officials make abundantly clear is that before Trump, the agency mostly focused on immigrants who committed serious crimes. Since 2017 the focus has become on snatching anyone without legal documents in the country. 

“The beginning was that a number of years back, Shaul did a project with ICE down along the southern border. He remained friends with a spokesperson. A couple of years later, during the Obama administration, they asked if we were interested in doing something about immigration,” Clusiau told Entertainment Voice. “Then Trump was elected and immediately after the inauguration, he began changing the tactics of immigration policy. After a few months of conversations they still said, ‘yes, we would like you to come along and follow us.’ That’s how it started.”

“It was such a signature part of Trump’s campaign, and I just immediately recognized that what they do would be immediately changed,” said Schwarz. When the cameras enter ICE facilities, there are revelatory moments where supervisors chuckle at newly arrested immigrants as if they were a quota, and indeed they are as team leaders lament when the arrest numbers are small. A Latinx ICE agent sounds almost gleeful while driving that Trump has made the department so busy. Statistics onscreen inform us that in 2003 ICE had 8 units, now it boasts 129. “We didn’t know just how crazy things would get with zero tolerance, and everything else. It was never meant to be a ‘cop show’ though, it was always meant to be an inside out look. We wanted it to be about the enforcer and about the enforced, about the human toll in this complex system, which the more we went in, the more hopeless it seemed.”

This hopelessness is captured in the stories of various migrants profiled in the docuseries. Erin and Josue are two key subjects who are separated from their children at the border. Arrested undocumented migrants such as they face endless days behind bars, blunt meetings with officials who cannot explain why they are not allowed to reunite with their children. The luckier ones might be set loose with ankle bracelets tracking their every move. Another immigrant from El Salvador is a former police officer running from drug gangs set to kill him. “This not an easy thing to see, but we need this discussion. People come to the issue of immigration with preconceived notions, but they don’t see the human toll, they don’t understand the delicacy and complexity of the subject,” said Schwarz. 

“We saw more things than we were able to encapsulate in six hours of time. It pulls very hard at your heartstrings,” said Clusiau about bearing witness to the events they filmed. “There’s a part of you when you’re so into something, you don’t fully grasp what it means and how it will look six months after when the project is finished. But what always stuck with me was how this is a system where if you check the wrong box, apply for the wrong document, you could get stuck in a policy that changes within days. The trajectory of your life can just shift. That took a toll on me, just seeing how these things put in place are designed to make people give up.”

“You just feel like there needs to be a little more common sense. You would think some of these things can’t happen, like they can’t deport this guy Carlos, because we just spoke to a detective who said his story makes complete sense. Then he gets deported. Then there’s Deborah, who did everything right and came here as a refugee but has to fight to get her kids,” said Schwartz. “You see things that are so dark, you kind of want to shake and scream, but you don’t know what to do. On the other hand, you feel inspired because you wake up in the morning and if something is that broken, and you can shine a light on it, then you have a mission in life.”

In its editing, “Immigration Nation” juxtaposes the powerless migrant with those who are in charge of enforcing the system. The effect is quite unnerving. While we get recognizable clips of Trump making his bombastic statements, as well as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions also making vapidly macho remarks, more important are the interviews with ICE workers. One of them, a paper pusher who nonchalantly tells a migrant his case is doomed, even admits on camera he has family members who have been deported. The banality of such statements is almost shocking. It boils down to ICE agents and legal officials shrugging and blaming everything on their superiors. One of them bluntly tells the camera he will simply do whatever the law is on any given day. Meanwhile a migrant from Honduras will cry and wonder why he can’t be allowed to look for work in this country. His wife will stun him during a FaceTime call, refusing to migrate to join him, demanding money for a plot of land, so they can at least have somewhere to live when ICE inevitably sends him back. 

“We are grateful for the access ICE gave us,” clarified Clusiau, “we actually didn’t have much pushback during the filming. It was only during the review process where there was some pushback. They did support our first amendment rights to get the story out there.” 

Schwartz hopes audiences also see the complex picture drawn of the now infamous agency. “I’m dying to see what the ICE agents will think. It draws a complex picture. They really let us into their lives, like the immigrants did. At the end, while there were some issues, our first amendment rights prevailed. But the immigrants caught in the system don’t have the privilege of resources to protect those rights.” 

What if Trump himself was able to see the documentary? “I hope he would see that making this issue divisive comes with a human toll. I don’t think I have that hope anymore with him, but I would hope he can feel that. I suspect there are things we can agree on. I suspect Trump doesn’t want to deport veterans.”

The filmmakers also emphasize that current deportation and immigration policy was not exactly invented by Trump. It was being implemented during previous administrations, both Republican and Democrat. Trump has simply expanded it to a radical degree. An ICE agent states early on in the docuseries that official policy is to grab anyone deemed “removable.” 

For Schwartz the tragedy of current policy is that it distorts what should be seen as a natural part of the American legacy and experience. “You’re an immigrant, I’m an immigrant. Unless you’re a Native American, you come from this story. America is greater for that. That’s one of the most beautiful things in this experiment called America. There’s actually more we can agree on if we stop screaming from different sides.”

Immigration Nation” begins streaming Aug. 3 on Netflix.