The US Immigration System Is an Exercise in Mass Cruelty

A new Netflix series puts the evils of Donald Trump’s ICE on full display. The solution to such blatant cruelty isn’t to return to Barack Obama’s deportation-happy approach, but to finally construct a humane immigration system that isn’t tied to the carceral state.

Still from Immigration Nation (2020).

It was supposed to be the documentary ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) didn’t want you to see. A few weeks before Immigration Nation was set to appear on Netflix, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration was seeking to prevent its release. The filmmakers, Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, suddenly began receiving aggressive phone calls demanding that they remove certain scenes the agency found unflattering.

In the end, after repeated threats to subpoena footage and bring the “full weight” of the federal government down on the production team, the dispute was resolved, and the six-part series started streaming in early August. Reports that the Trump administration was trying to censor the film ultimately created more buzz for the film.

Yet ICE’s last-minute attacks on Immigration Nation obscured the fact that the agency was perfectly happy to give the filmmakers access to its agents and facilities over several years of filming. ICE’s public affairs director Bryan Cox sat for extensive interviews with Schwarz and Clusiau, while also providing several behind-the-scenes glimpses into how ICE’s local field directors manage their mass arrest operations. While we can’t know for sure what motivated higher-ups in the Trump administration to bully the creators of Immigration Nation, the film clearly portrays ICE like many in the agency want it to be seen.

Despite its somewhat generic title, Immigration Nation does provide a shocking look inside ICE. At the same time, it also contains humanizing profiles of undocumented immigrants, including rare interviews with those currently in detention facilities, and the filmmakers showcase the brave work of activists — often undocumented themselves — fighting against wage theft or ICE collaboration with local police.

As the camera crew follows Stefania Arteaga of the Charlotte-based activist network Comunidad Colectiva, she documents ICE enforcement operations in 2018, and we see the tactics long used against immigrants, but only recently spreading to Americans of all backgrounds, including federal agents refusing to identify themselves, snatching detainees into unmarked vans.

But unsurprisingly for a documentary that relies heavily on access to law enforcement, Immigration Nation suffers one critical flaw: it cannot fully separate its own point of view from the mixed messages coming out of ICE. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the series’s handling of the connection between criminal and immigration enforcement.

The documentary focuses heavily on Trump’s 2017 executive order that effectively undid the Obama administration’s priorities for ICE enforcement. While Obama instructed the agency to prioritize those with serious criminal histories, Trump gave ICE the green light to arrest and remove anyone in the country without legal status. Many of the rank-and-file agents who speak to the filmmakers are enthusiastic about this policy — as one officer puts it, “we’re finally able to do our job…. I honestly still can’t believe that he’s our president.” For another officer, “it’s like Christmas for us.”

Schwarz and Clusiau do not appear to approve of Trump’s Christmas gift to his most loyal federal agents; the impression one gets is that they would prefer a return to the Obama-era policy of deporting “felons, not families.” But despite the Trump administration’s apparent policy shift, ICE representatives continue to justify their harsh approach as necessary to uphold public safety.

Filmed during a public meeting defending collaboration between ICE and local police, Bryan Cox reassures North Carolina residents that “unless they themselves have committed a criminal offense, they themselves have nothing to worry about…. Our focus is on persons who are in the country unlawfully who also commit criminal offenses.”

The filmmakers may not expect the viewer to believe ICE’s spokesperson that only criminals are the agency’s targets. But they almost certainly do intend for us to sympathize with the New York–area agent who confesses that he prefers not to take “collaterals” — arrests of undocumented people who are not on ICE’s radar but who are unlucky enough to find themselves near the main target — because he’d rather be out looking for dangerous felons. Never mind that in the same scene, the agent’s supervisor calls with an instruction to “start taking collaterals,” knowing full well the film crew is in the car.

There is some value in putting the worst evils of ICE — and the series has no shortage of evil, in both the straightforward sadistic and banal Arendtian varieties — into the public view. At the same time, presenting the fundamental problem as trigger-happy ICE agents emboldened by the Trump agenda ends up obscuring the realities of our “immigration nation.”

To take an easy example: at one point, a Trump-supporting deportation officer cheerfully speculates that removals are now “probably double” what they were before. The officer’s enthusiasm for ripping apart families and sending many people to their likely deaths is jarring (particularly after the officer tells the audience that two members of his own family have been deported).

The filmmakers neglect to point out, however, that the officer’s claim isn’t true. Trump’s enforcement agenda has brought about a new reign of terror in immigrant communities, and his administration has inched closer to shutting down the asylum system altogether. But since the immigrants targeted under the last administration often had fewer defenses at their disposal — whether because they included fewer asylum seekers or had more extensive criminal histories — Obama remains the “deporter in chief.”

Most importantly, Immigration Nation perpetuates the myth that prioritizing removals of people with criminal records would create a more humane immigration system. The filmmakers rightly side with activists seeking to end “Section 287(g) agreements,” which deputize local police to conduct federal immigration enforcement. But deporting “felons, not families” also relied on local police and jails to find the “felons” in the first place.

Obama-era ICE agents were less likely to terrorize you at your home or workplace — your local sheriff’s reign of terror was enough. For ICE’s assistant field director in Charlotte, a sadistic thick-necked, goateed man identified in the film as “Bob,” the current system might be more exciting, but the difference is minimal: “Even under the Obama administration when we had the priorities, that really didn’t limit anything…. There was this little fine print at the bottom that said ‘you can arrest anybody you want to….’ And we did!”

Only an immigration regime that is fully decoupled from the police and carceral state, and that no longer mimics the latter’s infrastructure of armed enforcement and mass incarceration, can hope to eradicate the evils depicted in Immigration Nation. It is therefore a shame that the documentary did not include a humanizing portrait of an undocumented person who also happened to have a serious criminal record. (The one slight exception is a man named César who was deported after a conviction for marijuana possession, but who is treated as an exceptionally egregious case because he had served in the Marines.)

To win a more humane immigration system, we will have to challenge the lie that an immigrant who has violated the law must be banished from our society in order to maintain public safety.

Simply displaying the evils of ICE under Trump does little to bring us closer to that goal. In a new age of public impunity, where Trump-loyalist federal agents are snatching protesters off the street, the nativist far right no longer cares about hiding its blatant abuses of federal law enforcement power.

ICE’s public relations team may try to muddy the waters with mixed messages, and its legal team may try to harass critical journalists. But if you put a camera in front of people like the ICE agents who appear in Immigration Nation, they will show you who they are — knowing full well that without a real alternative to the system that put them in power, they have nothing to fear.