A tiny, frail elderly woman in an orange jumpsuit lies listlessly on a bunk bed in a Texas detention facility for undocumented immigrants. Originally from Guatemala, she will be held there for a total of 17 months after seeking asylum in the United States with her 12-year-old granddaughter, whom brutal M-13 gang members had tried to force into marriage. The grandmother is eventually deported in the dead of night to Guatemala without the chance to even call her lawyer or daughter.
This is just one of the gut-wrenching stories presented in the new six-part Netflix docuseries “Immigration Nation,” a comprehensive and incisive exposé of US immigration enforcement under the Trump administration co-directed by award-winning Israeli-American filmmaker Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau. The series began streaming on August 3.
“Immigration Nation” provides a rare and detailed glimpse inside the workings of various agencies of the Department of Homeland Security, including ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), CBP (Customs and Border Protection), and HSI (Homeland Security Investigations).
Beginning in 2017, Schwarz and Clusiau gained unprecedented access to these agencies for almost three years. Using a broad set of tools from documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism, they shed light on what human rights lawyer Becca Heller describes in the series as “this crazy, terrorizing system.”
The overall picture portrayed — from the perspectives of both the immigrants and the officers who arrest, detain and deport them — is damning. In the weeks prior to the program’s release, the Trump administration threatened legal action against the creators and wanted the series’ broadcast delayed until after the upcoming elections in November.
In a few scenes, ICE officers appear to be acting in legally questionable ways. In others, some officials routinely mock the immigrants and dehumanize them by referring to them as mere numbers for filling quotas. Officers talk about “hunting” these people, and about immigrants as “bodies.”
Even a CBP paramedic who treats a dehydrated and injured immigrant comes off a few minutes later as callous.
“That moment was so interesting, to see them switch hats like that,” filmmaker Schwarz told Time. “You saw kindness and humanity, but for Border Patrol, their job is to catch people. As the ambulance is leaving, they’re chit-chatting among themselves about how they chase people all the time.”
An unfair, fixed system
The filmmakers follow the stories of specific immigrants and refugees (who are overwhelmingly from Mexico and Central America) as a way of illustrating the impact of current policies and their enforcement on individuals, families and communities. The creators cast doubts on the fairness, effectiveness, and even basic logic of how the US government treats people fleeing persecution and economic hardship.
The show depicts how undocumented immigrants are arrested in their homes or on the streets (sometimes without specific warrants), families are forcibly separated, children incarcerated in cages, and adults indefinitely detained awaiting adjudication of their case. The idea is to prolong the legal process so that people crack, give up and ask to return to their home countries, no matter how dangerous or desperate their situations are.
“Being in detention, not knowing what’s going on on the outside, not having resources to fight your case from the inside — it wears you down,” Clusiau told Time.
The Trump administration’s assumption is that these measures will deter others from trying to cross into the US. Under Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy some 60,000 people who crossed the US border “the right way” at a port of entry and requested asylum have been forced to cross back to squalid camps in Mexico to await their turn to appear before an immigration judge.
Many Americans — let alone the migrants — don’t understand that immigration judges work for the Department of Justice, which is part of the government’s executive branch. The series explains that these judges could lose their jobs if they do not meet deportation quotas set by the administration.
Zero tolerance policy a zero sum game
What we see in “Immigration Nation” is the result of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, which cracks down on all undocumented immigrants, including those with no serious criminal record. But restrictions on immigration began under previous administrations. For instance, the militarization of the border with Mexico started with the 1994 “Prevention Through Deterrence” policy, and ICE was formed under the Homeland Security Act of 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks.
According to Melanie Nezer, senior vice president for public affairs at HIAS, a Jewish American organization assisting and advocating for refugees, the new zero tolerance policy punishes people who not only do no harm, but actually help American society.
“Our country depends on the labor of undocumented immigrants, especially in times of emergency and rebuilding. Yet many political leaders blame them for our country’s problems, when in fact all they are doing is the work,” said Nezer.
“The constant fear of arrest, jail, and deportation that these essential, hard-working people and their family members — many of them US citizen children — live under every day is appalling and a national shame,” Nezer told The Times of Israel.
Our country depends on the labor of undocumented immigrants, especially in times of emergency and rebuilding
“Immigration Nation” also criticizes immigration enforcement from several lesser-known angles, such as wage theft from migrant construction workers who follow natural disasters in search of employment, and the deportation of non-citizen US military veterans who commit misdemeanors. The series enlightens viewers about the stalled family reunification program, and the contentious 287(g) program whereby ICE partners with local and state law enforcement to identify and remove aliens from the US.
The filmmakers profiled labor organizers and immigration advocates pushing back against the dysfunctional system. Schwarz and Clusiau found their drive and tenacity inspiring.
“For immigration advocates, these last couple years have been tremendously hard,” Schwarz in an interview with Time. “When you spend so much time in this broken system, you tend to lose hope.”
Schwarz and Clusiau save the most gruesome subject for the last episode, which focuses on the work of HSI and the CBP search and recovery teams on the southern border. It’s a game of cat and mouse as the officers try to apprehend individuals smuggled over vast sections of the border. Thousands of people don’t survive the harsh desert conditions and the officers often recover bodies, bones — or sometimes nothing more than a personal effect.
The filmmakers show how some officers make it less likely for the migrants to survive by pouring out water and destroying food left in the desert by humanitarian volunteers.
Occasionally, officers will admit to having qualms about the morality of their work, but most just see themselves as doing their job.
“I put my personal feelings aside, which, yeah, maybe that’s what every Nazi said, right?” admits an Arizona ICE investigator.
I put my personal feelings aside, which, yeah, maybe that’s what every Nazi said, right?
“I actually believe in the cause of trying to enforce some sort of sovereignty over our borders, and no one’s figured out a better way to do it yet,” he clarifies.
HIAS’s Nezer told The Times of Israel that she hoped the series would make viewers pause and rethink.
“This series is so important. Immigration is an issue that many people have strong opinions about, and the series provides an opportunity for people to see for themselves what’s at stake,” Nezer said.
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