The New York City shown at the onset of Immigration Nation, the new Netflix limited series detailing the works and workings of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, is not the bustling, colorful, brochure version abounding with opportunity and possibility. It’s smaller, drabber, darker, and more desperate—the New York City in which over half a million undocumented citizens scrape out a meager existence under the constant threat of deportation. It is immediately clear why the Trump administration would fight to keep this documentary from being released before the 2020 election.
The first episode takes place in fall 2018, after the implementation of the “zero tolerance” immigration policy. A team of doughy, self-serious men, built like high school defensive ends and wearing Gang Unit tac vests, funnel into a quaint four-story walk-up. They are there to execute a warrant on an overstayer, which will in turn separate him from his family indefinitely, maybe forever. It’s the sudden conclusion of someone’s life as they knew it, a genuine tragedy, and yet the words, “I gotta take him to the Southern District, he’s gonna be remanded today,” are delivered by one ICE agent with the casual indifference of a mechanic expressing that the final cost will be a little higher than the estimate. As the team of agents walks their single “tango positive” out of the building and bundles him into an unmarked van, they pass their field office director, Scott, standing at the front door, handing out pats on the back: “Good game, good game, good game.”
If you feel much besides disgust in the opening throes of Nation, it’s simmering confusion: How did the filmmakers gain such access? How could an officer blithely blow apart someone’s family and then go home to their own with any peace of mind? The documentary reveals the answer to both to be the same: These people think of themselves as the Good Guys, doing unglamorous but honest work for decent money. To charges of Nazism or characterizations of his removal officers as modern-day secret police, Scott (throughout the doc, the last names of agents, officers, and officials are often redacted) offers that it’s just a job that affords him the kind of homelife he wants. One officer in the Undetained Unit—which deals with undocumented citizens released on bond and awaiting a court date—expressed on two separate occasions that placing ankle bracelets on non-detainees who’d at worst committed moving violations was neither harsh nor personal. Judy, from ICE Fugitive Operations—they go out and do the actual arrests—is nothing like those ghouls from the horror stories you’ve seen on the news, wrenching crying children from their parents at the border and laughing about it. She’s a parent herself. “I’m not part of that separating families stuff, we don’t do that,” she says in one scene. In the very next she stands by while one of her officers pulls a hysterical 4-year-old girl off of her father’s leg.
Immigration Nation is alternately galling and infuriating, overfull with onlookers and talentless villains who freely demonstrate how divorced they are from reality. You get the sense watching Bob, from Mecklenburg County, that he fancies himself as the star of an office comedy, rather than an ICE assistant field office director. Mike from Homeland Security Investigations, who wears a 10-gallon hat everywhere and keeps his bottom lip packed with chaw, understands that asylum seekers “just wanna make themselves a better life,” but then likens them, and the coyotes who take advantage of their plight, to the World’s Most Dangerous Game. To Bryan Cox, ICE spokesperson, spinning the dissolution of American families as public protection is simply a test of his abilities as a salesman. Like Stephen Miller or Jared Kushner or any of the other host of young, smart-suited, self-obliterating conservative rock stars, Cox is simultaneously young and ancient, and completely dead in the eyes. “If you’re a public affairs person,” he says in the second episode, reclining in a motel suite chair, Big Boy tie laid over his oxford shirt, “where else would you want to be except where the action is?” The language these people use is more suited to the discussion of sport, or of quarterly returns, than of human cost.
This—the cruelty of a zero tolerance immigration policy, and the distance between that cruelty and those who perpetrate it—is by design. The brilliance of bureaucracy, Nation argues, is that it spreads culpability wide and impossibly thin: If it functions as it’s supposed to, officials will be individually over-empowered, yet convinced of their own powerlessness to affect lasting change. Each actor in the process, from the officers serving the warrant to the supervisor of the Non-detainee Unit approving the final deportation order, gets to think of themselves as a ferryman—no more consequential, and no more responsible. They might not have looked so soulless had they gotten to tell their side of the story in a vacuum: But how can you, as a viewer, accept Carlos Perez, who fled Mexico over gang-related threats, being knowingly sent to his death over a technicality, as part of some new normal? What is Judy’s flimsy self-acquittal against the tears of Josué Rodriguez, a detainee in Norfolk who went well over a month without seeing the face of his 3-year-old son?
The answer is nothing. It amounts to nothing. The penultimate episode, “The Right Way,” is all about disambiguating that phrase—the lawful way, as specified by John Amaya, former ICE deputy chief of staff, is the way most of the victims of the latest ICE raids have taken. Applying for a visa, going through the naturalization process. No one seems to know exactly what the “right way” is, save for dullards like ICE officer Sam, of El Paso, who escorts deportees back across the border with the helpful suggestion that they try it, next time. The Exit is over a bridge, and once across, one of the deportees turns back to Sam, to get a last word in. The man, an all-but-naturalized citizen, had been deported, and waited five years to come back to the U.S. He would’ve had to wait twice that long to reenter the country legally. Sam asked, what was five more years? “Could you stay away from your family for 10 years?” the man asked.
Sam couldn’t even begin to answer.