Inside ‘Immigration Nation,’ the Netflix docuseries ICE didn’t want you to see
Early in the first episode of new docuseries “Immigration Nation,” a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official pulls out his phone and records a video inside the agency’s New York City office, where a lone immigrant sits inside the processing room. It’s the start of a weeklong operation to arrest undocumented immigrants.
“Just making sure ... I thought there was an op today,” the official says sarcastically, at one point looking at the documentary camera, before sending the video to supervisors with a gleeful chuckle.
It’s one of many fly-on-the-wall moments captured in the six-part Netflix series that gives a rare inside look at the machinery of ICE and the bureaucratic maze of the country’s immigration system.
Covering the spring of 2017 to the winter of 2019, “Immigration Nation” documents the implementation of President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration framework, a central theme in his 2016 campaign, and its effect on the migrants who must grapple with it — casting the lens on the enforcers and the immigrants. (None of the participants were compensated for their participation.)
The series hails from directors Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, the team behind 2017’s “Trophy,” which explored both sides of the debate over big-game hunting.
The Times spoke with Clusiau and Schwartz about embedding with ICE, administration officials’ complaints about the docuseries and efforts to delay its release, and cultivating trust with the featured migrants. The conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed.
What was the catalyst that set you on this journey? Was it a certain speech Trump gave? A person you encountered whose story resonated?
Clusiau: Initially it was just understanding that when Trump was elected, there were going to be some big changes in immigration policy. Prior to that, Shaul had a connection with an ICE spokesperson from a different shoot he was doing from way back, like maybe 2011.
Schwarz: Yeah, I shot with him a little bit about their drug enforcement and Homeland Security investigations. And I stayed in touch with a spokesman, who I would kind of consider a friend. I actually was interested in immigrants that came to this country, and I thought ICE is kind of a fascinating asset to cover... even in the Obama days, when I think there was less attention. I had asked them if we could do a show or something about immigration. At that time, they kind of thought that the attention was off them and they didn’t want to let that kind of come in. And when Trump was elected, me and Christina went to lunch with the spokesman and kind of said, given the rhetoric of the campaign and how things were kind of building up around the wall and ...
Clusiau: The travel ban ...
Schwarz: [We said]: “Would you consider [it], because we think ICE is going to be much more in the forefront.” And that’s kind of how the project started. We were always fascinated, particularly in this time, and the access just made it a no-brainer. But, we always told them that it would be a mix. ... We called it a “‘Wire'-like look,” in a pitch, about the immigration system.
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A trailer of Netflix’s new docu-series, “Immigration Nation.”
Did you have to make concessions early on to get this access?
Schwartz: We signed a multimedia agreement.
Clusiau: Within it was kind of a standard approach that they have the right to review for factual inaccuracies, like our statistics are correct ...
Schwarz: Or law enforcement sensitivities — basically anything that would give away tactics that are sensitive. Those were the two main privacy issues. It’s a pretty standard contract, actually, with [Department of Homeland Security] that a lot of production companies do sign, if you work with them. I imagine most production companies slightly negotiate that contract. So did we. I can’t remember exactly how long it takes, but I want to say somewhere between two to three months, but it wasn’t because there was that much to do. It was kind of a slow burn at the beginning. And then we just got going. But it was clear that they normally don’t grant access. And we said, “We’re going to do a substantial show about this if the access would be real.”
Were you surprised they ended up granting you the access they did?
Schwarz: You’d have to ask them, but I think they felt that they were coming under a lot of heat and ICE is a little bit of a different law enforcement agency. It really changes its angle on shifts of political administrations. ICE people love to say that no matter what happens, 50% of the time you anger 50% of the American people. And I do think that they have a point, to some degree. And I think they felt that coming, and they saw our prior work, “Trophy,” and it was about a controversial issue that we took kind of a middle-line approach. I think that’s our style, to provoke and make people think, and show very raw things, and take tough issues that people are very emotional about and dare to let you choose.
We were really grateful when we actually landed with people on the ground, because I think some people really didn’t want to talk — and that was OK. That was maybe half of the people. But we would get introduced to people and then we would kind of start embedding or talking to them. And we pretty quickly could tell what was a little bit of a tour ...
Clusiau: And what was real access. I feel like because the agency’s so vast too, there’s a lot of ICE individuals who were ICE individuals under Obama, as they are [under] Trump, as they are [under] whatever the next administration is. I think they have a very large spectrum of opinions. And I think we were able to connect with individuals on that level because so many of them come from different backgrounds, different places and different tenures, and in the agency, once you kind of land with them and spend time in cars with them and drive for four hours because you’re going to some operation, you do find common ground. You start to really talk and realize that they are in a tough position under this administration to do their job.
It was quite a variety of individuals. ... I think there’s this perception that immigration just happens on the border. I think it was unique to be able to go to New York and North Carolina, Arizona, Texas to kind of show how each place, they’re up against different things. And I think that was something that was important to us, to dive in and understand where they were coming from in their place in the country.
Schwarz: People would ask us like, “Oh, my God, you’re spending time with them” — depending on where you come from, it’s such a polarized issue. People are like, “Are they assholes? They must be the worst.” And the truth is, that’s not the ICE officers we met. There’s already controversy around our show, and I guess that’s too bad because the review process is completely different than the people we spent the years with. And, yeah, like Christina said, we just found them in a very hard position as this issue got more and more heated and as orders came across.
I grew up in Israel and I served in the [Israeli Defense Forces], and now I can kind of be very open to say: I wasn’t for the occupation; I thought it was not the right thing. But I served in an army; that was its job. And as somebody who takes orders, you’re caught in a hard position. You’re just a soldier. And I think that is something that interested us, that we hope actually comes across in the show that is not throwing any side under the bus. I think people want us to say, “Oh, tell them that they’re so bad,” and “abolish ICE,” and this and that, or the other way around.
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The series traces the Trump administration’s zero tolerance stance on immigration. And as we see over the six episodes, the policies were changing in the midst of your filming. How did this documentary change from where it started?
Clusiau: At the very beginning, we’ve kind of had this vision of broad strokes — that we wanted it to be from the inside out and vice versa. Looking at ICE agents and their story lines from inside the system, but also individuals that were caught up in the ICE’s web, from inside the system too, and following their trajectory.
As we saw how quickly things developed within policies, we had to be very nimble. ... But we always had that idea that everybody’s chewed up within the system — whether it’s the immigrants, whether it’s the ICE agents. The overarching thing is the policy that is consistently chipping away at immigrant rights.
Schwarz: It’s like everything changed and nothing changed. ... There was a clear tactic: to instill fear, to push people to be scared — this way of thinking, “We’ll make it bad enough they’ll just leave or not come.” That’s just what everybody inside the system said.
I think it’s very hard when you cover immigration because there’s so much fear [among] the undocumented and inside ICE. They usually don’t let you actually talk to the people or show their faces. And it’s very hard to humanize a person without doing that. Those were like our driving pillars.
And it wasn’t easy, because even with the great access to ICE, it wasn’t that we could just do anything. These guys get moved all over detention centers — a lot of people will say by design. We could only enter in certain points and certain moments. I think it’s still extraordinary compared to what ICE usually gives journalists. All of these things made for a really, really hard production that was really super shifting.
It’s been reported that ICE tried to have the series held, at least until after the election. And that it’s shocked by what it says are “mischaracterizations” in the series. What is your response to all that it has said so far?
Schwarz: If you’re referring to the story in the New York Times, it’s 100% accurate. There was a long, unfortunate process of them trying to shift the editorial and doing it in what we saw as a very bullying way. And I’m sorry to say it, but I don’t think that’s a surprise anymore about this administration. We’ve seen it in other places. But it’s extremely unfortunate, especially because we had a great relationship with ICE for a long time. And we always say we’re grateful for the time we got to see the access, and we have no beef with the boots on the ground, so to speak.
We don’t think the show portrays ICE in a way that mischaracterizes them. If we wanted to just do a gotcha, we could have done a lot more, to be honest. We’re really looking forward for the men and women of ICE to watch the show, because when they talk in honesty — whether it’s at the bar or after work, or it’s 6 a.m. waiting for someone for hours to come out the door — I think they’re going to see a mirror of what they do all the time.
I don’t think it shows them as the bad guy necessarily. I think it shows their reality. Again, I was a soldier. I served in a place where I didn’t agree with the politics. And maybe if someone documented everybody, everything, my platoon, it would at times look bad to me. I get it. Our message is: Look at the bigger, systemic problem.
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Did they at any point try to stop production?
You touched on this a little bit earlier, but how did you find the families or individuals willing to participate? I imagine many of these immigrants had never spoken to a journalist or a filmmaker before. So how do you cultivate that trust at their most vulnerable and navigate safety concerns with the subjects?
Clusiau: It was challenging. I think for the amount of people that we profile in the series, there were many others that just were not interested. They didn’t want to be on camera, which we totally understand and respect, because I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in that position.
But I do think that there were some situations where, for example, like the [fathers separated from their children] — there’s this whole world around them that’s closing in on them. And I think there was a moment where they just felt like they wanted to tell their story. They wanted somebody to talk to. And I think that was kind of the guiding light: If somebody wanted to really tell their story, we would try to go from that point and talk to them more and say, this is what we’re doing; are you interested in participating? We would walk that line very carefully because we think all these individuals are in such vulnerable positions, and we don’t want anybody to be put more in danger because of the work that we’re doing.
Schwarz: It was very challenging because a lot of the time we would find our subjects from embedding with ICE. So if you can imagine knocking on the door at 6 o’clock in the morning and needing to say, these guys are trying to come in and do their business and we’re like, “We’re separate from them” — slightly in my broken Spanish. I understand everything, but I speak a little bit, so usually it was in Spanish of me saying, ‘We’re independent journalists. We’re not with them. Would you be OK if we document your story? If you sign paperwork, we could air this and we can try and stay in touch and so on.” And you know, a lot of people said no. But a lot of people said yes. And I think they felt slightly more protected, although we can never influence any situation, really.
You talked about allowing your subjects to speak for themselves. And I think there’s the assumption that people might be on their best behavior in front of cameras. But over the course of the episodes, we see some of the ICE employees say and do some pretty brazen things, knowing full well that the cameras are there. Was that shocking to you?
Clusiau: Sometimes it was shocking; other times it was not. You start to understand individuals’ personalities, and some [are] a little bit rougher than others and some have more empathy or sympathy than others. And so you tend to just keep the camera rolling because you just never really know what’s going to come through. When somebody is not used to being on camera, there’s always a sort of wall of, “What am I supposed to say? How am I supposed to react? How am I supposed to talk about myself?” But eventually, usually when you’re following people doing their work, some of that stuff just kind of goes out the window, and they start to let down their guard.
Schwarz: The opening scene of this immigrant being brought to detention, when he bangs his head and Scott, who was the head of the unit there, pretty higher up, [records video] — that was actually one of the first days of production. And because it was kind of an operation, me and Christina were in different cars. So I was there [in the office] by myself. and I remember, as he makes clear, it was like the first arrest. It was early morning. And I remember texting Christina if she can talk for a second because I was little bit like, “Holy [expletive]!” I was the only guy in the room. It was like the three of us. He was looking at the camera and he’s clearly aware of the camera. It’s how he acts. And some people will hate him, and ICE told us that he would get fired for it; I don’t know if that’s true. As time went by, there was a lot of that.
What shocks me is ICE is like, ‘Oh, they managed to catch these couple of moments. And we’re not like that.’ I’m sorry. Bull—. I’m calling bull— on that. And to make it complicated, I think again, from serving in the army, from embedding in policing as a journalist, I think if you have this environment that is set from the top — and it’s really true to DHS under Trump — then some individuals are going to be emboldened. Now listen, to put in perspective, they’re not kneeling on a guy, killing him in the footage we saw. Nothing like that. It just shocks me that they would pretend that that’s not the day-to-day part of the operation. That’s the honest truth.
How did you decide what issues or points about immigration to focus on? Had there been thought about exploring the Muslim ban since it was one of the first controversial policies of the Trump administration?
Schwarz: There was a big fight about that scene.
Clusiau: There’s an early cut with that in it in Episode 1. We used to have this map on our wall with a construction paper cutout of some different places where we want to explore. And a lot of it was guided from the inside access that we had to ICE.
We kind of focused on wanting to have stories unfold in front of us. So a lot of it was like the Muslim ban already had happened, so it was archival.
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There’s a pretty remarkable moment, I think it’s in Episode 4, where Stefania, a teenage immigrant from El Salvador and activist we meet in the series, is live-streaming in close range some of the arrests ICE is making in her neighborhood following the dissolution of the 287(g) program in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County. What was that like to film?
Clusiau: She’s a warrior. She’s something else, that one. She just keeps on going. She never gives in. She was able to build enough support in her community that she was like the leading force for other people to stand up. And I think [there’s] really something to be said [for her] to step in front of the line and say, “Yes, I’m vulnerable. I could get caught up in this. But it’s more important to me to make sure that my community is safe.” It’s pretty incredible.
Schwarz: This world is so depressing when you spend time in it. On one hand you feel so lucky and the other hand you’re just so helpless. And then you meet the Stefanias of the world and they just give you hope. They give you hope because they push and they’re truly courageous. She particularly is. We had the scene that didn’t make it in with her. She was driving and we were like, “What do you want to do now?” And she’s like, “I wish I could just go to college.” And I suddenly remembered (a) how unprivileged she is; (b) how young she is; and (c) that she’s just a regular person. It put into perspective what she did: how she beat an election. It was really a lot to do. It wasn’t just her but Comunidad Colectiva, the grassroots [immigrants rights organization] that she leads; they really changed the landscape in North Carolina.
I know you said you stopped filming last year, but considering the ways the coronavirus has affected immigrants — how the virus has spread in detention centers, who is out there working and most directly affected, who’s eligible for stimulus checks — have you wanted to resume filming as an additional episode? Do you think you might explore this down the line?
Schwarz: I think we need a break from this just because it was very taxing, and then the fight to get it to go out to people was really emotionally taxing. But I don’t know. I think we might maybe, in a different format. Pretty sure ICE is not going to allow me and Christina back on exclusive access. We often, through the production, wished we could tell stories we couldn’t, which sounds weird because we have this great access, but there were some immigrant stories that we had to drop a lot of things or not follow through for obvious reasons. Maybe when we get a break, we’re going to try to write something on this world that is based on truth, but it is a fiction show or film. That is something we’ve thought about a lot.
It’s un-American, it’s inhumane that we do this to people. I don’t think people understand the human toll, the price — and how in a story like Bernardo [an immigrant from Guatemala separated from his son, Emilio, when they came to the U.S.], how it destroys a family.
You talk to the left and they’re like, “Abolish ICE, no wall.” And I’m like, “OK, but every country needs some kind of system.”And then you go to the other side and they’re like, “It’s all fake news.” And I was like, “Do you think we can deport veterans?” And they’re like, “You’re lying.” I think that’s really our focus now: to get some conversation going so we can agree on these things and actually change them and relax our screaming.
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