The initial main draw of Immigration Nation, the six-part documentary series on immigration enforcement under Trump released on Netflix this month, was that US authorities did not want you to see it. After viewing a final cut, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), which had allowed the film-makers, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, to embed with agents for over two years, attempted to intimidate the production team into delaying the release. The agency threatened Clusiau and Schwarz with lawsuits, according to a New York Times report, and to use the “full weight” of the federal government to block publication of certain Ice scenes usually invisible to the American public.
It didn’t work, and watching the six-hour series, it is clear why the agency did not want the footage to become public. Immigration Nation, more than any other documentary of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, allows Ice agents and officials to explain their perspective. And thus more than any other documentary, Immigration Nation reveals how a government agency upholds and perpetuates evil. Two-plus years of Cops-style embedment doesn’t glorify Ice agents, but instead reveals the agency to be populated by, in some cases, callous people who gloat over arrests; more often, affable people fulfilling their small part of the contract as directed, with the compartmentalization it requires.
Immigration Nation is not the first series to delve into the actions of Ice under the Trump administration. Last fall, Netflix released Living Undocumented, which explored the range of experiences of undocumented people in the United States, from Trump-era arrivals to those who have lived undocumented for decades. HBO’s Torn Apart focused concisely on the impact of the agency’s “zero-tolerance policy” – the 2018 directive which allowed Ice to separate children from their families – through the horrifying lens of two mother-child pairs. Frontline’s Zero Tolerance and a chorus of news specials looked anew at Ice’s expansive enforcement policies, especially after outrage billowed in response to family separation, under the Trump administration.
But no project has provided what Immigration Nation’s unusual access does: the time, space and trust to allow Ice, as a bureaucratic agency with many cogs, to tell on itself over and over, and to demonstrate how “just doing my job” becomes a sprawling system of terror by design.
There are the egregious shocks, of course. Immigration Nation captures Ice agents manipulating confused people to admit them into their homes (agents cannot legally enter unless given permission), mocking people in custody, presenting inaccurate figures to mislead the public and in one case, illegally entering a residence by picking a lock. But more often, Immigration Nation reveals the individual justifications that compound into a punishing system, and the rationalizations that allow said system to metastasize. Clusiau and Schwarz embedded with agents in New York, in the “detention center” in El Paso, in a center in Charlotte, North Carolina, in Arizona. In each of these places, agents and officials explain their work through a common phrase that runs like a mantra throughout the series: “I’m just doing my job.”
“I’m a soldier, I was in the military before – I do what I’m told,” says Arturo, an Ice deportation officer in El Paso. “We are a politically driven agency. If you change the law, that’s the law we’re going to follow,” says Joe, the officer in charge of the El Paso detention center. “I’m not a judge,” says a deportation officer of non-detainees (often, people who have lived for years or even decades in the US or arrived as a child, and whose deportations, once deprioritized, have been encouraged by the Trump administration). “My job is just to remove you … it’s not personal, it’s just business.”
“As a human, you have compassion for other people,” says Judy, a female officer in New York. “But you know the saying – it’s a job, and somebody has to do it. So, that somebody is you.”
It’s true that the justification isn’t that different from so many roles in late capitalism – helping mega-wealthy people avoid taxes, managing sales of products made by Uighur labor in China, somebody’s gotta do it – but the series reveals the galling compartmentalization needed to peddle it. This is partly facilitated by the dissonance between the terror the agency inflicts and the trappings of Ice as its officers experience it: a familiar office with familiar co-workers, laminated “Integrity, Courage, Excellence” poster on the wall, rubber-banded folders amid the disconsolate gray of American office buildings. But in allowing the agency time to speak, Immigration Nation imbues the travesty of Ice’s conduct with fresh horror. This is how family separation was carried out at different rungs of the ladder. This was the squishy language – words separated from their physical impact – used to cushion devastating intent. It’s just a job, you hear between segments in which migrants or undocumented Americans reveal unfathomable and preventable trauma. It’s just work.
None of this is new or revelatory – advocacy groups and journalists have been meticulously collecting and explaining information on Ice for years now; horror stories of family separation, of veterans deported or Americans ripped from their communities, have no doubt been shared on your newsfeed and replayed on cable news. What Immigration Nation does offer, more than the exposés, audio or even the other documentaries on American immigration under Trump, is a visual, unmediated look at the nonchalance, obfuscation and rationalizations that pile into evil at work. Part of what makes the unbelievable legible is seeing the familiarity of what keeps it functioning day to day – cubicles, work lingo (“non-crim”), PR strategy sessions. The clarity that is Ice officers just explaining their jobs.
“The brilliance of the system is that their job has been siphoned off in such a way that what they see day-to-day seems justified,” says Becca Heller, the director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, in a first-episode interview that encapsulates the whole series. “But when you add up all of the people ‘just doing their job’, it becomes this crazy, terrorizing system.”