In 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in their infinite wisdom, granted a pair of filmmakers unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to their officers and facilities. And for nearly three years, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz captured the human toll of Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy, which saw undocumented families ripped apart and placed in ruinous detention centers.
According to Clusiau and Schwarz, ICE—who were contractually allowed to review cuts of the series but to only request edits for privacy violations or factual errors—demanded that the series’ release be held until after the 2020 election, and that the request came from “all the way to the top,” reported The New York Times. Despite governmental pressure, the resulting 6-part docuseries, Immigration Nation, is hitting Netflix on Aug. 3.
And it may be the most devastating viewing experience of the year.
The action opens on April 9, 2018, three days after then Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that federal agencies must “adopt immediately a zero-tolerance policy for all offenses” related to illegal entry into the U.S. We see ICE agents conduct a raid on a New York City apartment in the dead of night, refuse to show the mother a warrant, and take her husband away. We’re then transported inside ICE’s New York field office and witness firsthand the cruelty of the agents, who giggle while taking iPhone video of a man in detention as he shudders in fear and hits his head repeatedly against a wall; cheer the fact that they “got another one”; and casually eat fruit while staring at a detained man with a sheet over his head in a holding cell.
“I have a good, stable home. I make good money. To be called a Nazi, a racist—it’s ignorant. It’s ignorant,” says one ICE field officer. “We don’t pick and choose groups of people based on race, color, religion. We just look for people who are removable.”
Under previous administrations, ICE prioritized those who commit serious crimes. Under Trump, as one ICE official explains, “We’re arresting all immigration violators—if you get convicted of a crime or not.”
There are also a high number of what agents call “collaterals”—or undocumented people not even accused of committing a crime but who are present during a raid. In one scene, the director of ICE’s New York field office repeatedly asks his agents “how many targets” they’ve accumulated that day; following that, he calls an ICE agent and says, “Bring at least two people in—I don’t care what you do.”
The boss repeatedly asks “how many targets” have been accumulated that day, and after that, he calls an ICE agent and says, “Bring at least two people in—I don’t care what you do.”
Agents apprehend a “collateral” from Guatemala, who is seen crying over the phone to a loved one. “I left my country because my father was murdered,” the young man says through tears. “I don’t know what the problem was, but they told me if I didn’t leave the country they would also kill me. And this is still the case. I know that they will kill me as soon as I arrive.”
Some of the female and Hispanic agents appear conflicted about the inhumanity of their jobs, and express frustration with the arrest of “collaterals.”
“Luckily for us, we haven’t really been involved in any of that family-separation thing. We don’t rip children out of families’ arms and things like that. That’s just not what we do,” says one female ICE agent in New York City. What follows is perhaps Immigration Nation’s most harrowing sequence, where that same officer separates a New Yorker named Geronimo from his crying baby daughter.
For other agents, it is all a game—and these people who have been fought like hell to get to America just numbers. “There’s 45,000 beds in the United States, and in this field office we have about 4,000,” offers an ICE agent in Atlanta. “We plan on keeping every one of them full. We’re gonna fill our beds, for sure. We’re gonna do everything we can.” Meanwhile Bob, an ICE assistant field office director in Charlotte, chuckles to his cop-pals about arresting immigrants who admit to him that they’ve crossed the border; later on, he laments the fact that his office only collected 70 people. “I wanted 100,” he says. Then there is ICE public affairs director Bryan Cox, who runs through a list of talking points—including that “91 percent of the detainees are criminals”—only to be corrected by an ICE agent who says that it’s more like 35 percent at their office. “Oh yeah, that’s fine,” Cox replies. “Just own it.”
Immigration Nation transports viewers inside detention centers and ICE field offices across the country, and even into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. But it’s the stories of the victims, torn from their children and parents, that prove the most haunting.
“When he asks for things, he raises his hands. At night, sometimes at night, he wakes up crying, like he is afraid.”
“When I was at ICE, they told me that they were going to separate us forever. She was going to stay here. I don’t know in whose hands,” cries Erin Ramos, a detained young father. “My daughter was crying, ‘Papi, don’t go! Papi, don’t leave! Stay with me. Papi, come with me. Papi. Don’t leave me alone.’ Crying. ‘And me as well, my love.’ ICE took her from right in front of me, leaving me with pain in my soul, because I’ve never been apart from her.”
Johana, whose young son was separated from her and detained for forty days in a detention center, recounts how it affected him. “He came out very strange,” she says. “When I saw him for the first time, like this. He just breathed. He didn’t speak to me at all…for a long time. Then he spoke to me. He was nervous. He was taught some things…by force…because he did not know how to use the bathroom. When he asks for things, he raises his hands. At night, sometimes at night, he wakes up crying, like he is afraid.”
While ICE was quite active under the Bush and Obama administrations, the agents and film make clear that things have been rapidly accelerated in the Trump era. In addition to ICE agents seizing non-violent offenders and “collaterals,” the Trump administration instituted “production quotas” for immigration judges, who are controlled by the Trump administration’s Department of Justice. If judges do not handle enough cases, they find themselves in the “red” and are dismissed. Pictures of money bearing Trump’s face and hats reading “Fake News” are strewn about ICE offices. And prior to the Trump administration asylum seekers who presented themselves at the border were immediately processed; now, it can take years in a detention center before you hear anything.
Such is the case with Berta, a 63-year-old grandmother who legally entered the U.S. with her granddaughter, Yariela. The two fled to America after a member of MS-13 attempted to forcibly marry Yariela at the age of 12, and threatened to set Berta on fire if she did not allow it. So they traveled for ten days until they reached Texas and turned themselves in at the port of entry, seeking asylum. Yariela was released to her mother in Houston; Berta was detained, and has been imprisoned in ICE’s El Paso Detention Center for 17 months, awaiting processing. We spend some time with Berta, who is fearful for her life, until suddenly, she’s deported back to El Salvador at 3 a.m., and without informing her attorney.
“The only thing I can say is that nobody can know she is back,” Berta’s friend warns her attorney. “Gang members are always asking about her.”