It is a testament to the turbulence of this presidential administration that there seems to be a new bombshell tell-all announced every month. Yet for all the attempts by the White House to suppress and discredit Michael Wolff's Fire & Fury, Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House, Mary Trump's Too Much and Never Enough, or John Bolton's The Room Where It Happened, there have been few revelations that have done more than merely corroborate that the White House staff is dysfunctional, and the president thin-skinned and erratic.
Netflix's Immigration Nation is the rare look at the administration that the White House is actually right to be terrified of. The six-part documentary series, out Monday, began back in 2017 with the cooperation of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); the idea was for filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz to document the way the agency evolved under President Trump. Three years on, the administration has since attempted to censor the documentary, or at least block its release until after the November election. They're smart to have tried: Immigration Nation is a bombshell that actually lands, not just because it contains more than idle gossip, but because it devastatingly undermines Trump's tough-on-immigration message by showing the inhumanity and unconscionable cruelty of his agency's tactics.
When Trump descended down his golden escalator to announce that he was running for president back in 2015, he opened with a famously vitriolic and racist speech: "[Mexico is] sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems," he said. "They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people." The language stoked Trump's base, but relied on stereotypes of Latin America that aren't based in truth; today, the "vast majority" of people in ICE custody have no prior criminal record, federal numbers published by Syracuse University show. Only one out of five detainees has committed what ICE classifies as a felony, although the agency's definition is broad and includes crimes like "selling marijuana," which is decriminalized or legalized in many states. Still, under Trump, ICE has been empowered not only to sweep up "collaterals" — random law-abiding and often tax-paying undocumented immigrants they stumble on while searching for their target — but have also adopted a dangerous and unsuccessful policy of "deterrence," with the objective of making life so horrific for immigrants, including their young children, that word supposedly travels back to where they're from and stops more migrants from coming. "The administration has changed, and we are finally able to do our job," brags one agent in the doc.
Part of what makes Immigration Nation so eye-popping is, quite simply, the stupidity — or perhaps arrogance — with which the ICE agents speak and act in front of rolling cameras. It is sickening to watch agents gleefully celebrate breaking apart families with their arrests, or mocking their detainees as the fathers, mothers, children, and grandparents sob in holding pens. Other footage is even more incriminating: agents lie to immigrants in order to gain entry into their homes and arrest them, and at one point, an officer even illegally picks a lock with a knife to enter a building during a raid. Bryan Cox, an ICE spokesman, ghoulishly discusses ramping up ICE arrests as retaliation against a county that votes out a sheriff who was more friendly to the agency, and admits to inflating the number of criminal arrests. Many of the interviewed agents complain about being compared to Nazis, but turn around and justify their actions by saying "I'm just doing my job." One of the most alarming moments comes when the filmmakers are riding along with an agent who has previously expressed his uneasiness about arresting collaterals; the agent's boss calls him and on speaker phone, knowing full well cameras are present, insists "I don't care what you do, but bring at least two people in."
But immigrants aren't collectables in a video game. Over the course of Immigration Nation, you watch as a police officer from El Salvador who fled to the U.S. after informing the NYPD on gang activity, thereby making him a target to be killed, gets deported after dutifully showing up for his ICE meeting. A 63-year-old grandmother who sought asylum after protecting her 12-year-old granddaughter from a forced marriage to a gang member is deported after over a year in detention, returning to Honduras where people are actively hunting to kill her. A father is separated from his young daughter, who had witnessed her mother get murdered back home; the girl later recounts agents taunting her by saying she would never see her dad again. A teenager whose father remains in detention stares dead-eyed off into space while saying, "I used to dream about growing up. I wanted things. But I don't think the same way anymore. It's changed." Another father explains through tears that "even the best man cries about being separated from his child." Most of the time, though, the parents are unable to rub the tears out of their eyes because of the way they are awkwardly cuffed. The cruelty is not only unjustified, it seems to have no bounds.
And those are the immigrants who still have a voice to speak to their interviewers. Immigration Nation's final episode (which comes after an infuriating episode about migrants attempting fruitlessly to enter the country the "right way") illustrates how desperation leads to the deadly desert crossings most Americans think of when they hear about so-called illegal immigrants. This, too, though, is a part of our cruel immigration system: because of the bad optics of having immigrants jump fences in places like San Diego, border patrol "reroute[d] migrants away from highly trafficked and relatively safe urban crossing zones and into remote and perilous stretches of scorching, waterless desert," The New York Times has previously reported. One agency document from 1997 that's included in the film even details how an increase in deaths on the border would be a favorable sign indicating that border patrol's strategy was "successful;" 2019, notably, was one of the deadliest years on record. "We thought that if enough people died, they would stop coming, but clearly that has not been the case," Jason De León, a UCLA anthropologist studying Latin American migration, emotionally explains. Deterrence, just like the supposed proliferation of "rapists and murderers," is exposed as a political lie used by the administration to validate violence and psychological trauma that has only been paralleled in the darkest chapters of human history.
What's truly remarkable about Immigration Nation is that it gives ICE ample and even-handed opportunities to speak their part — and they still manage to come out in the clear moral wrong. Regardless of how you feel about immigration policy, we have duties, as human beings, to treat others with compassion and empathy, and to mitigate suffering, to not be a passive cog in a machine of hurt.
The bitter conclusion of the series, though, is that there is a dearth of such sentiment among the leadership of this country, which is exposed as being at its abhorrent peak under Trump but has been perpetuated by Democratic presidents as well. "We're going to continue doing what we're doing until someone stops us from doing it," an agent announces at one point, and though it's meant as a boast, it's hard not to hear as a challenge.