'Immigration Nation': TV Review

Immigration Nation - Publicity still - H 2020
Courtesy of NETFLIX
Not an easy watch, but often essential.
8/3/2020

Netflix's six-part docuseries offers unprecedented field access to ICE and builds a portrait of an immigration system in need of compassionate overhaul.

If the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) takes any lessons from Netflix's documentary series Immigration Nation — and ICE's pushback against the series and its directors, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, suggests the agency has no such thing in mind — it should probably be: If you don't want your organization and its employees compared to Nazis, you should probably stop using the phrases "I just follow orders" and "We just follow the laws."

Those ill-considered, responsibility-defying words ring out persistently through Immigration Nation, each time generating a little explosion of irritation. There are almost too many such explosions to count over the course of the series, resulting in the rare viewing experience that's both essential and excruciating, especially with each of the six episodes running a hair over an hour. Immigration Nation is utterly convincing and utterly exhausting, a harrowing reminder that, while we've been distracted by other things in the past few months, these issues remain of immediate concern.

The series is assembled from the thousand hours of footage Clusiau and Schwartz filmed while embedded with different tiers of ICE from 2017 to 2020. Given the repetitive stress reactions caused by each use of the "I'm just following orders" cop-out, it's a minor frustration that the directors never get anywhere near the people actually giving those orders; Donald Trump and Kirstjen Nielsen loom in press conferences and public events, but not as interview subjects. Voices representing ICE here, rather, range from ground-level foot soldiers yanking undocumented residents off the streets of New York City to authorities monitoring border camps to skulking PR guru and malevolent spinmeister Bryan Cox. And frankly, the series' access to those figures is astonishing. Even more astonishing are the things ICE agents are willing to say to the cameras between round-ups and lock-downs.

I'm sure ICE isn't happy with how ICE looks in Immigration Nation, but I raise this concern: Outside of a Girls Gone Wild video, it's hard to think of any situation in which somebody already doing something bad decides to behave even worse because a camera is rolling. So either this is ICE officers on their absolute best behavior or else that's another problem ICE should be trying to fix before coming after a Netflix doc (or undocumented residents who are, otherwise, law-abiding, tax-paying members of society).

Do you have any idea of how little empathy or introspection it would take for any of these officers to look like an actual hero here? I do, because if you make it to the sixth episode, there actually are two or three agents and officers who are able to articulate concerns about the process and simultaneously speak to the need for sovereign borders. You may not agree with them, but relatively speaking they look like humanitarians.

The directors, who also serve as part of the series' multi-person filming and editing team, build their argument in a way that isn't immediately obvious and occasionally feels protracted, but cinches tighter as the docuseries proceeds. The first episode unfolds primarily between New York and El Paso and honestly it's more even-handed that I think ICE had any right to expect. The NYC agents come across as cold and callous as they lead a one-week series of raids and detentions, but they also look civil and efficient. That's contrasted with the individual stories of several detainees, stuck in limbo in facilities, separated from their children and exhibiting the humanity and emotion that the ICE agents lack.

Don't worry, ICE apologists! Subsequent episodes contain insinuations from both agents and the president of the United States that sad refugees crying about separation are lying or acting. Is Trump a villain here? Maybe? Does it make you the villain if you tell Republican Jewish organizations "Our country's full" or promise crowds in Minneapolis that fewer refugees from Somalia will be entering their state just to hear them roar? If you agree with those statements, he's not the villain, and you can join the ICE agents in cackling at separated families and long-term U.S. residents being sent back to a "homeland" they were taken from before they could read. And even if Trump is a villain here, he's far from the only villain. Yes, certain specific policies are blamed on the current administration — the name "Stephen Miller" is never mentioned, much to his chagrin, I'd bet — but every president from Bill Clinton on is singled out for at least some blame.

The first episode or two keep falling back on that all-too-familiar refrain, "We're not opposed to people coming into the country, but they have to do it the right way." From there, the series goes through one case after another after another after another where "doing it the right way" or "doing it the legal way" didn't work. You could probably find some conservative sympathies for the case of deported veterans. But what of the asylum seekers who can get stuck in facilities on the Mexican side of the border for weeks or months waiting on the capricious whims of an ICE "list" that nobody seems to understand? Or the refugees fleeing life-endangering circumstances who, after making it into the U.S., have to wait months or years to get their children out of the same circumstances they were forced to flee? In every case, "the right thing" and "the legal thing" may be different.

The directors largely take a fly-on-the-wall approach to their filming, standing back and giving people on both sides of every issue the opportunity to show their true feelings. And when that doesn't work, the editing is occasionally lethal — like a direct cut from an ICE agent saying he hopes separating parents and kids will be a deterrent to Kirstjen Nielsen feigning offense at a reporter's inquiry as to whether the policy of family separation is...meant to be a deterrent. There are plenty of chances to throw things at your TV.

There's room in these episodes for varying shades of monstrousness and varying shades of tragic victimhood, though as the series progresses, it also finds its heroes — and they're heroes of all sorts. There's the medical examiner's office in Arizona, committed to identifying the hundreds of bodies that turn up in the nearby desert due to the "death funnels" created by the border wall; these people offer closure, however devastating, to grieving families. There's Stefania, a young North Carolina activist leading a fight against the ICE-enabling Section 287(g), even though her own status is precarious. There are the immigration attorneys fighting a politicized system where the rules and their implementation are being changed on a daily basis with minimal notice. [Disclaimer: This critic is the son of an immigration attorney, and may be predisposed to think of them as heroic.]

As in-depth and widely-encompassing as it is, Immigration Nation feels barely like the tip of a horrible iceberg. Nobody, including the people enforcing the policies, feels like the system is working, and most viewers will come away certain that the systemic unfairness is somewhere between malevolent and arbitrary. I'd love to see a second season offering some solutions, or valorizing the people out there advocating for solutions. I doubt ICE will be as eager to participate; not giving access is easy, but making wholesale systemic change, as Immigration Nation consistently proves, is both hard and necessary.

Premieres Monday, August 3 on Netflix.