In the first episode of Netflix's Immigration Nation, a young father in chains tearfully recalls how his 3-year-old son sobbed and clung to his leg before U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents separated them. His son is barely old enough to talk, he explains, but ICE agents won't allow them to see each other because they have to "comply with the rules."
This becomes a common refrain throughout the six-part docuseries, which charts how the U.S. immigration system has evolved under the Trump administration. Though both George W. Bush and Barack Obama deported a large number of immigrants during their presidencies, Trump's "zero tolerance" policies have put an emphasis on high deportation numbers regardless of individual circumstance. This has created a system that's as ruthlessly efficient as it is impersonal: People are reduced to numbers, accountability is null. As one desk agent insists to the camera, it's the judge who deports people; he's just filing the paperwork. Another cog in a vast, insidious machine.
This is likely why ICE granted unprecedented access to directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz in 2017: All of the agents and spokespeople featured believe they're working toward a net good. "We're just doing our jobs," the ICE agents complain when protesters compare them to Nazis. But across nearly three years of filming, Clusiau and Schwarz captured a much different picture. In one scene, an ICE officer casually admits he gets "satisfaction" from deporting people, while another laughs that he doesn't know enough Spanish to understand if someone is saying they're a citizen. During a ride along, an agent gets a call to "start taking collaterals" — random bystanders who are swept up during raids — to meet their quota. Another agent illegally picks a lock to get into an immigrant's home. An ICE spokesperson openly lies about how many arrests are for violent crimes. Cruelty is so commonplace, it hardly registers with those invoking it.
Unsurprisingly, ICE began to backtrack after seeing Clusiau and Schwarz's footage, which they shared as part of their contract with the agency. According to The New York Times, ICE fought to remove scenes and even block Immigration Nation from being released until after the 2020 election. As Jeva Lange put it for the Week, "They're smart to have tried." Every episode is more incriminating than the last.
Perhaps most damning, though, is the way that ICE undermines the very rights and institutions it claims to protect, particularly under an administration that claims to hold American liberty above all else. In one episode, a county sheriff explains that crimes against immigrants often go unreported because victims fear they'll be deported if they speak up, and his own county sees an uptick in retaliatory raids after local politicians attempt to limit ICE activity in their community. Another episode follows migrants hired to rebuild Panama City, Florida, after a tropical storm, only to be denied pay and threatened with deportation. And Episode 3 introduces César, an American Marine who was "sent back" to Mexico despite having fought for the U.S., where he'd lived since he was 2, because he was once caught with a small amount of marijuana.
Ultimately, what Immigration Nation hammers home is that the problem does not rest solely on individual agents' beliefs, political affiliations, or even their basic morality. It rests on the system they exist within and the policies that embolden it. As one ICE agent chillingly remarks, “We’re going to continue to do what we do until someone stops us from doing it."