ICE officials are having second thoughts. No, not about indiscriminately rounding up undocumented people or about separating children from their parents at the border, but about giving two documentary filmmakers permission to film their operation and how it evolved following Trump’s election. During his campaign, Trump promised his supporters that he would crack down on undocumented migrants living in the United States. The second he had the opportunity to do so, he followed through. Immigration Nation, a six-part docuseries set to release Aug. 3 on Netflix, shows the tactics used to enforce the president’s policies. The filmmakers say Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials pushed to have entire scenes deleted or at least to delay the release until after the presidential election. Their efforts may have done the series a favor by turning it into forbidden fruit.
But the excitement of watching something the government doesn’t want anyone to see took two minutes, in my case, to turn into rage. The first episode begins outside a building in New York City at dawn. A group of ICE agents is banging on the door of someone’s apartment. When a woman asks them to identify themselves, they refuse to say.: “We’re not going to yell out in a hallway through a closed door. That’s not how we do business.” We know what happens if she opens that door, but she has no way of knowing that they’re immigration police there to arrest her father. She asks for a warrant. An agent offers her a business card. “Plus, you opened the door and let me in,” he says, callously suggesting it’s her own fault.
That scene hit too close for comfort. After 9/11, Homeland Security carried out a series of raids on the homes of Muslim Americans. They tricked my mother into opening the door, just after 4 a.m., to search our apartment. Remembering that trauma, wishing they too were caught on camera, I realized this would be a difficult watch. It didn’t let up. One scene shows an ICE agent illegally breaking into an apartment building, picking a lock with his pocketknife. Another shows an ICE deputy field office director, identified as Mike, mocking someone they had detained and filming him with his iPhone. Bryan Cox, who works with ICE Public Affairs, is caught on camera intentionally misleading the media. At a press conference, he says that 91 percent of their arrests last year were criminal. Behind closed doors, he and his colleagues acknowledge that the current stats, showing 35 percent of arrests are criminal, disproving what he just said. “Yes. Just own it,” he tells them privately.
I couldn’t believe what I was watching. The filmmakers, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, have been granted access other filmmakers could only dream of. Not many images are ever released from inside ICE detention centers, but Clusiau and Schwarz talk to the detainees. They speak with parents, many of whom were just separated from their children, in undoubtedly one of the hardest parts of the show to watch. They also interview people in custody who tried to do it “the right way,” by seeking asylum, one of them a grandmother who was wanted for murder by violent gang members of MS-13 because she refused to let one marry her 12-year-old granddaughter. She’s been in ICE custody for 17 months, so Trump can keep his promise to slash refugee resettlement numbers in the States.
Clusiau and Schwarz also interview the ICE office workers who inform detainees of their fates and Border Patrol officers who execute search and rescue missions in the Arizona desert. I live in a neighborhood with a massive migrant community. Having witnessed the trauma ICE raids have placed in the hearts of workers here, I’ll admit, the chances of me empathizing with these agents were slim from the start. But I did come away with a better understanding of who these people are and how they won’t ever fully understand the terrorism they’ve inflicted.
“We constantly look like we’re the bad guys.” Judy is an ICE Fugitive Operations officer whom the filmmakers spent a lot of time with. “All we’re doing is enforcing the laws and doing our job,” she says. I get that. It’s unfair that anyone feels compelled to follow orders that they have no control over. We all have to earn our money somehow. But later she says, “Now, the administration has changed and we’re finally able to do our job.” It was at that moment I understood that for officers like Judy, who’s been working in immigration enforcement for 12 years, she’s stopped seeing these families as people. If she has orders to police an entire community without exception, there’s no room for discretion and, in turn, no room for empathy for the people she polices.
Brian, an ICE Fugitive Operations agent, does show a bit of empathy, saying he doesn’t arrest undocumented people who aren’t hostile just for the sake of numbers. Just after saying that, he is reprimanded over the phone. Bob, an ICE assistant field office director—who earlier told the cameras after arresting a father in front of his children, “I’m a dad and I have a grandchild. It’s tough when the kids are involved”—reprimands Brian for his discretion. On speakerphone, he tells Brian he needs to arrest more undocumented migrants who haven’t committed crimes, to get his numbers up. “I don’t care what you do, but bring at least two people in.” Even Brian tells the filmmakers, “That’s a pretty stupid thing to say.”
Throughout the show, I began to realize how this job, where agents are forced to see people as inherently criminal, makes empathy impossible—I just watched as someone with empathy was reprimanded for it. But what became infuriating for me, as a child of immigrants myself, was their refusal to understand why so many are unemphatic toward them. “I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them,” is an attitude often repeated in the show. Clusiau and Schwarz have produced a work here that perfectly demonstrates what happens to an enforcement officer who is forced to try to justify their actions. They lie, deflect, and hide from the truth: that what the work they are doing is unjustifiable.
A Homeland Security Investigations officer named Mike breaks it down perfectly. He says, “I can’t tell you how exhausting it is to be putting cuffs on people that you honestly can’t blame one iota for what they did.” He gets even more candid. “I don’t like that about my career. But I still think it’s important to do it. And I put my personal feelings aside. Which, yeah, maybe that’s what every Nazi said, that I put my feelings aside, but I actually believe in the cause of enforcing the sovereignty of our borders, and nobody has figured out a better way to do it yet.”
Is it possible to empathize with people who are without empathy? The filmmakers gave ICE and HSI every opportunity to justify their operations. The series feels deliberately balanced by Clusiau and Schwarz, giving equal airtime to the migrants and enforcers. Each group speaks directly to how they’ve been affected by the top-down application of law. So what does it mean that ICE officials tried to prevent us from watching it until after the election? It can only mean that they’ve finally been forced to look into a mirror and they don’t like what they see. And they know we won’t like it either.