Six hours of a stranger’s time is a big ask, especially if you’re vouching for a show you haven’t seen yet. But leading up to the August 3 release of Netflix’s Immigration Nation, plenty of people ventured out on that limb to promote the series on social media. This came after one of its main subjects, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), sought to block the project’s release and threatened legal action against its creators. Now, it’s all too clear what the agency took issue with — and the series’ amplification has become even more important.
‘Immigration Nation’ is most threatening to Trump because it is fair, thorough, and true.
Directed by Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwartz, the six-part docuseries began production shortly after the Trump administration took office and, for a time, had the rare support of ICE and other administration officials. Unlike other impactful documentaries released in recent years, Immigration Nation didn’t purport a specific agenda during production; even its title is ambiguous enough to make one believe the project could fall on either side of the contentious debate it covers.
The belief that such objectivity would promise ICE a kind of fair shake is likely what gained Clusiau and Schwartz their unprecedented access, allowing the pair to witness immigration operations firsthand across the country for over two and a half years. And yet, the message that Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has become an egregious violation of human rights is so astonishingly apparent in the finished series that it’s difficult to argue any other interpretation of the evidence Clusiau and Schwartz gathered. ICE feared their people looked bad in this film, and it is true that they do. But the question of whether that portrayal is a result of the filmmakers’ agenda or the agency’s actions is unlikely to be asked by anyone who’s actually seen it.
From 2017 to 2020, Clusiau and Schwartz documented the United States’ labyrinthian immigration process thoroughly and appear to have upheld journalistic standards with watertight integrity as they did so. In the first episode, viewers witness evidence of this as they are entrenched in ride-along footage of New York City and El Paso ICE raids, the kind you could easily see underscored by COPS‘s “Bad Boys” theme if it weren’t peppered with sympathetic officer interviews discussing the emotional toll that comes with immigration enforcement. It’s an hour that stands to make many uncomfortable, as it seems to almost defend the work of an organization many have likened to domestic terrorism. Some may even argue it offers a humanizing platform for people who do not deserve one considering their voluntary participation in a system that hurts so many.
But in that episode, as scenes of detainees humiliated, bystanders harmed, families shattered, and officials celebrating their role in that destruction mount, the teeth of this project begin to show. Over the next five hours, Immigration Nation drags viewers through every feasible corner of immigration policy in the Trump era. We see the separation and reunification of families, deportation of alleged criminals and unlucky “collaterals,” the abhorrent exploitation of many people under ICE “care,” and an inherent cruelty that seems to find its way into even the most mundane aspects of the system.
Although Clusiau and Schwartz make liberal use of text slates for statistics, Immigration Nation is mostly devoid of other context and narration. Instead, interview subjects of all kinds recount their personal experience with Trump’s ever-changing tactics to deport undocumented immigrants and deny entrance to asylum seekers. There are the emotional narratives viewers will likely already be familiar with, namely those of parents separated from their children at the border, families mourning the deaths of loved ones who attempted journeys to the U.S., and individuals sent back to countries where they will face certain peril. Tragically, these accounts aren’t what stand out.
It’s a consistent passing of the buck that not even thousands of hours of footage could find an end to.
Instead, it is the perspective of the enforcers that are the most damning. Those who acknowledge the inherent flaws in the system while insisting they’re just “doing what they’re told” and “following the law” make up the majority of sentiments in every episode — a consistent passing of the buck not even Clusiau and Schwartz’s thousands of hours of footage could find an end to. As one man claims through embarrassed mumbling, “It’s not personal, it’s business.”
But there are also stark moments of abuse and misconduct that tell a bleaker story of intentional harm being done on immigrant families. From one officer gleefully describing raids as being “like Christmas” to another picking the lock on a private residence, Immigration Nation offers a plethora of bad PR moments for ICE. The frequency of these occurrences in the series substantially support, if not entirely prove, the notion that this is a systemic problem that has risen to the level of a human rights crisis. The disparity between these groups, in terms of power and compassion, is so powerful it’s no wonder ICE couldn’t manage the narrative they thought they were helping craft. There was simply too much to hide even when the storytellers were being as even-handed as expected. (That said, the fact that Clusiau and Schwartz were willing to redact the last names of many ICE officials to protect them from public backlash seems to be the sort of kindness only an attorney could buy.)
The greatest frustration viewers are likely to find in Immigration Nation is not its lack of reliable reporting, but its lack of emotional catharsis. Still, that’s a price worth paying for rigorous journalism in a nation seized by post-truth politics — even if it doesn’t change any minds. This series is most threatening to the present administration not because it employs a rhetoric too powerful to be ignored, but because it is fair, thorough, and true.
Immigration Nation is now streaming on Netflix.