Detention and Deportation



Early in the morning Brian, an agent with the New York City field office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is driving down the highway when his boss tells him over the phone “I don’t care what you do, but bring at least two people in.” This is a story that repeats itself over and over again on the Netflix documentary series “Immigration Nation” released earlier this fall.

Directed by Christina Clusiau and Saul Shwarz, founders of Reel Peak Films, an Emmy award-winning production company focused on making journalistic documentaries, “Immigration Nation” is one of few detailed looks into Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Trump Administration, and ultimately proves to be a searing indictment. 

Oliver Merino, who works for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, told Anthro this month that for many people not already connected to immigration issues, the film is a “wakeup call,” adding that the way ICE agents behave throughout the documentary “hasn’t been shown publicly in this type of way.”

The documentary continues to be important due to the recent reports of poor responses to the Coronavirus pandemic and worrying reports of women in ICE custody being sterilized, according to a Vice News article published Sept. 14.

The recurring theme of the documentary is simple: The footage speaks for itself. Agents detain and deport many people over the episodes, which show the many aspects of ICE, from the arrests, appearances in immigration courts, to deportations.

While the main focus of the documentary is on ICE, in later episodes the filmmakers touch on other aspects of the United States immigration system. In particular, the final episode “Prevention Through Deterrence” shifts the focus towards Customs and Border Patrol and the policy for which the episode is named, where barriers along the US-Mexico border force migrants to travel across miles of hostile desert leading to many deaths and disappearances.

While the film does not editorialize about the behavior of the federal government, the optics of the agencies on camera is not great. Agents lie about who they work for, deport parents and separate children. While some agents relish their work, the rest simply say that they are just following the law and the orders of the president.

Handcuffs and chains lie on the tarmac as immigrants are loaded onto a plane to be deported (photo credit: Reel Peak Films.)

The documentary has interviews throughout with ICE agents, undocumented immigrants and activists, but there is no narration and most of the screen time is devoted to footage of immigration authorities doing their job.

Despite this, “Immigration Nation” is a powerful example of the problems with the US immigration system. The film alternates between the raw emotion — such as when parents are reunited with their children after being seperated at the border — and the knowledge of lawyers, activists and ICE employees who explain the policies.

“Immigration Nation” tells real, human stories about an issue and an agency that is often shrouded in secrecy. In the end, we are left with a deep understanding of the issues surrounding immigration policy in the US and the way that the Trump administration has systematically harmed both migrants and refugees.