‘Immigration Nation’ on Netflix: TV Review

It’s hard to imagine that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agreed to be a part of “Immigration Nation” without expecting the docuseries to shine a more flattering light on the federal agency than it’s otherwise used to. Under a contract with ICE, filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz get an unprecedented inside look at how the agency runs, from following deportation officers as they sweep cities to training cameras on their paper-pushing bosses back at the office. With that access, “Immigration Nation” provides a damning indictment of the labyrinthe systems that make ICE so powerful, and a wrenching examination of the human cost its policies have wrought. The series includes provocative evidence of human devastation at the hands of ICE employees, as well as bosses obsessing over their arrest numbers to the point that they instruct officers to go back out and find more people to bring in (“I don’t care how”). 

ICE, of course, vehemently disputes its portrayal in the series, insisting that they’re “shocked by the mischaracterizations” in the docuseries. And yet, watching its six episodes, what makes “Immigration Nation” so effective beyond its sheer depth of information is how much it lets its subjects and situations speak for themselves. 

Shot between February 2017 and February 2020, “Immigration Nation” traces the Trump administration’s jaw-dropping effect on the country’s already disastrous immigration system. It makes plain the bureaucracy’s purposeful dead-ends and how circumstances that look “in order” on paper can nonetheless yield infinite harm in reality. It brings in experts to explain the deliberate knots inherent in all the conflicting policies and why it’s near impossible for anyone to untangle them — especially now, under an administration actively working to make it as difficult as possible. Time and time again, “Immigration Nation” lays bare how determined the current administration is to paint all immigrants and refugees with the same grim brush, regardless of how spotless their record might be. 

Bewildered immigrants, lawyers and advocates make this point at every turn. But it’s often most startling to see how ICE employees both acknowledge the hyper-speed evolution of their jobs under Trump and how they use their increased power to their professional advantage. Many of those interviewed stress that they’re not without sympathy for those they take into custody, but that they’re not “the bad guys,” as New York City deportation officer Judy puts it, “when all we’re doing is enforcing the laws and doing our job.” Others outright reject the notion that racism ever plays a part in their decision-making, insisting that they “don’t pick and choose groups of people based on race, color, religion,” but rather “just look for people who are removable.” (That these people are rarely white and don’t need any kind of criminal record in order for ICE to deem them “removable” doesn’t, somehow, enter the equation.) Most ICE officers shift blame for their most cutting actions onto their superiors, who in turn point back to the policies that let them do what they do. “It might sound harsh,” one says with a shrug, “but the government didn’t hire me for my moral views.” 

And yet, some of the series’ most incriminating footage is simply that which lets ICE employees talk about how they don’t have any culpability when they’re shielded by the law, never once questioning the law itself. As the series unfolds and deepens, it’s also fascinating to watch how ICE responds internally to outside pressure: activists who film stops are perpetual thorns in their side, while they tend to view progressive politicians as annoyances they can bat away by justifying increased force with a variation on, “your weakness gave us no other choice.”

But as its title suggests, “Immigration Nation” isn’t ultimately about ICE. It’s about showing how the government exploits an immigration system that’s both broken beyond repair and constantly remolds it to work against immigrants, no matter how or why they try to come to this country. It combines years of footage that follows immigrants for every infuriating step of their attempted journeys to US citizenship, sometimes even embedding with their frightened families back in their countries of origin to give a more complete picture of their experience. When it introduces fathers Erin and Josue, for example, the series doesn’t stop at just showing us their obvious pain at being separated from their children. Instead, it tracks their struggles to get them back, get some work, and stay together. In following them and others through more stages of their lives rather than just showing them at their most obviously traumatic moments. And in so doing, “Immigration Nation” does the harder work of conveying the everyday, crushing damage of failing to achieve the American Dream, because the Americans in charge have no interest in letting you try.

“Immigration Nation” premieres Monday, August 3 on Netflix.

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