Shocking New Docuseries Highlights ICE’s Many Abuses. Will It Be Enough to Wake People Up?



By Yehudit Mam

August 12, 2020

Will the docuseries ‘Immigration Nation’ spur the U.S. to end ICE’s human rights abuses and demand immigration policy change?

Almost nothing you will watch in the extraordinary documentary series Immigration Nation is new. You have read or seen the news about Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s raids on undocumented workers, the shocking image of a young father and his little daughter drowned in the Rio Grande, the masses of legal asylum seekers shunned at the border. Perhaps you even joined a protest against family separation. Even if you think you have seen it all before, if you have a human heart, this series will shock and sadden you to the core. 

As we have learned from the recent massive protests galvanized by the video of the murder of George Floyd, images of brazen injustice can arouse the conscience of a nation. Can this Netflix series actually get American viewers to understand the complex subject of immigration and demand lasting immigration policy change? Will it finally dawn on American audiences that the current U.S. immigration policies are based on the torture and dehumanization of people? 

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The creators of Immigration Nation unravel a complex story of deliberately designed systemic cruelty and the consequences it has on human beings, from ICE agents and bureaucrats to the men, women, and children, who come to the U.S. searching for a better life only to be caught in a nightmare, whose purpose seems to be to inflict pain and even massive death in the hopes of deterring more illegal immigration. 

Many Americans who watch this series will ask, “Why don’t they come in legally?” willfully oblivious to the fact that it is impossible to come into this country legally if you don’t already have the economic means to do it. Even asylum seekers who try to do it “the right way” are punished.

While this country has adopted draconian measures to curb illegal immigration since the Clinton era, and Obama was nicknamed “the deporter in chief,” the Trump administration has taken these policies to a racist and xenophobic extreme. By executive order, Trump has fashioned a hellish system that is both deliberately evil and haphazardly executed. It’s also good business for private prisons.

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I doubt that anyone can remain unmoved by the plight of Berta, a 67-year-old grandmother from El Salvador seeking refuge from gang violence. She is separated from her teenage granddaughter, who she is bringing to safety to the U.S. Berta spends 17 months in an ICE detention center waiting to be deported, most likely to her death. Her appeals are denied despite the fact that she has solid evidence of credible fear and poses no threat to this country, but she is callously used by ICE as an example to deter others.

As Immigration Nation shows, this racism underlies the economic exploitation of poor people of color, whether as undocumented workers without rights or as inmates in a private detention business that profits from their incarceration. Worse, it is ingrained in policies designed to ensure the deaths of thousands of migrants who try to cross the desert. Its cruelty and inhumanity can only happen in a society where certain groups of people are seen as less than human in the eyes of the public. The comparisons to Nazi Germany are not far-fetched. 

Many people were shocked when they learned of the separation of families and of children in cages. “This is not America”, they said. Unfortunately, this is America. A country that exploited Black people under slavery and continues their economic and racial oppression today is the same country that put Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II, and the same country that is committing crimes against humanity in its treatment of undocumented immigrants today. 

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Filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz spent two and a half years embedded with ICE. This gives us an unprecedented perspective of the labyrinthine deportation process. The film focuses on the individual stories of immigrants, government agents, immigration lawyers, and regular Americans, and paints a complex picture of human lives caught in a tangled web of terrible laws, policies, and practices. The filmmakers strive to balance the many horror stories with a couple of happy endings. 

We meet ICE officials who treat their charges with dignity under awful circumstances as well as others who are gleefully cruel.  We meet Americans who try to help, and others like Tommy Hamm, a businessman in Florida, who steals tens of thousands of dollars in wages from the undocumented workers he hires.  As always, the elephant in the room is how the same government that persecutes migrant workers looks the other way with the American businesses that employ them. The hypocrisy is staggering.

Immigration Nation is a thoughtful and sobering film about a very complex issue that looks at our own dysfunctional political and legal system and at the poverty, violence, and corruption of the countries that the immigrants are fleeing. But like most perspectives on immigration, it stops short from addressing the real root causes. What will it take for people in these impoverished, violence-ridden countries to stop coming to the U.S.? It’s not the cruelty of Trump’s policies: undocumented immigration is rising again thanks to the pandemic’s economic devastation. Only a long-term political and economic effort to diminish inequality and improve the living conditions of people across the world may help.

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Still, there is hope in the brave young activists from civic organizations who fight to protect immigrants, in decent immigration lawyers, and in ordinary Americans who band together to raise their outraged voices.  I am really curious to see if this powerful film, now available in millions of homes in the U.S. and worldwide, will have an impact. It should be required viewing.



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