The most searing, emotional and important film Americans can watch this year is Immigration Nation on Netflix. The 6-part documentary by filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau of Reel Peak Films tells the story of America’s immigration system through both sides, from the perspective of the immigrants and the enforcers. Along the way, Schwarz and Clusiau make important observations about the U.S. government “weaponizing the bureaucracy” to inflict pain in a broken immigration system.
The filmmakers received unprecedented access to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and their operations, and like How Democracy Works Now showed the workings of Congress, Immigration Nation depicts how the U.S. immigration system works in the real world. The film is about more than ICE operations, as chapters focus on unauthorized immigrant workers who endure wage theft, ICE enforcement actions that look like political retribution against a recently-elected North Carolina sheriff, and migrants who cross the desert and become sick or die. “They’re dying because there is not a line to get into,” says the Pima County medical examiner.
To gain more insight into the film and their observations about the U.S immigration system, I interviewed Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau.
Stuart Anderson: Can you comment on reports that ICE wanted you to make changes to the documentary?
Shaul Schwarz: We had a great relationship with ICE for almost two and a half years when that unfortunately took a turn when the review process started. We had a multimedia agreement, which is a very standard thing you would sign with a body such as DHS [Department of Homeland Security] as a production company. That allowed for ICE to look at the cuts for police enforcement sensitivities, privacy issues and factual incorrectness.
It was very clear from the first episode we handed in to them that the “asks” were way beyond those three conditions that they were legally allowed. We strongly believed that they tried to change our First Amendment right that was clearly in the contract. And that led to a dispute about the show, which went back and forth for a couple of months until we were able, ultimately, to go ahead and really publish the show we wanted.
Of course, anything we felt that fell under their right by contract or that made sense to us that wasn’t in the contract, like they asked to take out the last names of officers, we respected. But we did fight for telling the show that we believed was the reality we saw. And we’re happy that the viewer gets to see that.
Anderson: You were filming inside the El Paso detention center shortly after zero tolerance and family separation began. Can you describe that?
Christina Clusiau: It was probably our second or third trip to El Paso, in 2018, and I remember we were following the officer named Sam, and there was a group of gentlemen in a cell and family separation had just started. We asked if he could ask if anybody had the experience of being separated from their families and to our surprise 18 out of 20 of them raised their hand.
We were kind of shocked, and what ensued is that we were able to talk to some of the individuals and they told us their story and it was quite traumatic to watch it unfold on camera and the trauma they experienced and the heartbreak. I think you heard a little bit about it on the news and you read a little bit about what was happening, but it was the first time I think there was somebody able to really show what that looked like from inside the system.
Schwarz: I just remember by that time we had been working with ICE for a little bit and we knew that our access was very unique. I remember it dawning on us as we were watching these men, that we are here and really observing, and that one day people would be able to see it. I remember one of the men telling us how it’s been a couple of weeks and he still hasn’t even been able to connect to his son by a phone call and not knowing anything, even where he is, and not knowing where were his wife and his other child he had seen last in Mexico.
Anderson: Having observed this, do you think a zero tolerance policy on immigration is sustainable in a democracy?
Schwarz: No. In our experience, with the people in El Paso, they didn’t know it was going to start. They just couldn’t contain the numbers. They don’t have enough family detention centers to hold that many families. None of it was sustainable in the long run. There were rumors that they were going to build these basically, I fear to say the word, but a kind of concentration camps of military grade and style, but it didn’t seem like it was planned for. Of course, I personally think it would be, as most American people think, an inhumane tactic to systemically do it to anybody who’s broken just the immigration law.
Anderson: You showed something most Americans don’t realize takes place, which is that many unauthorized immigrants report in regularly to ICE. In the film, one man stood outside a federal building with his wife and three kids and said, “We go like a lamb to the slaughterhouse.” Can you describe the process you saw?
Clusiau: Usually what happens is that after you come to the United States, you’re detained or you’re not detained, but there’s always ICE maintaining vigilance. There’s a watchful eye. Whether it’s you are being monitored by phone calls or check-ins, or you have an ankle bracelet and you have to check into an office while you are awaiting your court proceedings. Also, if you’re in deportation proceedings, or you’re fixing your immigration status or you’re renewing your work permits, for any of those bureaucratic processes, they usually have you come in and check in. I think it got to the point for this specific family, after having been detained and separated, that, yes, you’re in the United States, you’re in your immigration proceedings, but there’s always a chance that even that check-in will result in either being detained or deported again.
We thought a number of times during this administration that the priorities had shifted to be that it’s no longer just detaining egregious criminals, but there was much a wider mandate to say that anybody here illegally could potentially be a target. I think that family was starting to feel that even though they have their immigration court hearings and proceedings, after the trauma of being separated and having been in detention, they knew what the system was capable of, and at any moment they could be removed from the country.
Anderson: You presented ICE as a law enforcement agency, but also as a bureaucracy. To what extent did you feel as you were filming that there was a desire to build up numbers or meet de facto quotas. Did that play a role in some of the policies you saw?
Schwarz: I think we repeatedly saw a desire to get numbers. I think anybody who works in ICE knows it, because it was kind of everywhere we went. Every officer’s different, and every field office is a little different, but overall I would say that during the time that we spent with ICE we saw it as a trend. I can’t speak to if that’s just the nature of the beast, and whether that was the same during Obama days or before. But in our time, we definitely saw a lot of agents wanting to hit numbers.
Anderson: In one episode, an ICE officer who just placed a man in detention tells the man’s wife that it’s “a beautiful drive” to the detention facility. Do you think ICE officers appreciate the impact their decisions have on families? How do ICE officers see themselves?
Schwarz: It’s a great question. And I think it’s complicated because there are many ICE officers and I do believe there’s a large gamut of people. I think some come across as extremely cynical and are not meant to be. A lot mean to be. I think these people at the end of the day who are working again and again, and they’ve worked in prior administrations, and they may work in the next administration, they felt when Trump came into power that the gloves were off, that they could do their job, that they have backing. I think they get desensitized to the fact that it’s lives. It’s not that they are not aware. They’re well aware.
I think when you’re an officer, you see a lot of tears and maybe you hear some lies and you get a little aggressive. I’m not trying to say that everybody’s like that. There’s this general push that I think that we were slightly surprised at, but if you let soldiers fight, they will actually engage. There’s some competitive nature in it. When you hear them just talking about numbers, some of it is desensitized, some of it is, I guess, the protocol. If you’re detaining and you’re taking someone to the back, I think it’s a protocol not to let them say goodbye to the wife because maybe that would cause a scene. And if you’re doing that every day, all day, then you’re going to just eliminate that. Is that the most humane answer for them? I don’t know, that’s for someone else to comment, but I think there’s a whole range of that.
Anderson: There was an ICE officer who would tell people you should do it the right way or just come in legally, even though he must know in the system there is no legal visa available for full-year, lower-skilled work. And people generally would not qualify for almost any of the categories and asking for asylum at a port of entry is legal. What do you make of his statements to people to just “Do it the right way.”
Clusiau: For him specifically I think that he really believes that no matter what, doing it illegally is not the right way. So even if you have to wait 10 years, and he was speaking to the individual that was deported for a traffic violation, to him, that that was more palatable than doing it the wrong way. I think there’s this misconception that there is a line to get into and there is a “right way,” but really there’s not. ICE officers know that but after they see things daily, they start to believe that this is the right way or not.
Schwarz: I think it’s comfortable to say this is only my job, let Congress change it, why don’t you do it the right way? But to me, it’s not okay. I understand you’re in a hard spot because you’re the enforcer, and we heard this a lot by the way from Latino officers who said, “My parents came the right way.” Not recognizing that there is very little opportunity to do it the “right way,” and under this administration, for many countries, there are zero opportunities to do it the right way. So, to me, it’s a little bit of “finding comfort” as an ICE agent being part of a system that sometimes isn’t just. It’s easy to say, “Well, I didn’t, I didn’t do it, I’m just a taxi driver, the judge told me to do it.” But you know that the immigration courts don’t really work.
I understand the hard position they’re in, but I think that these kind of statements, “I’m just a cog in the machine,” at the end of the day, when they look deep in the mirror, they probably know better that even though they’re a cog in the machine they are doing things that sometimes seem unjust, and there is no “right way” for many people. Most Americans don’t really understand that, although it’s been told by many immigration reporters. They think it’s all about a wall or people running across the desert, but it’s not. The real difference with this administration is weaponizing bureaucracy and changing it, as we show in that episode, so that there are people who follow the rules but who don’t get to stay, don’t get to have their children stay. I think that was the most frustrating thing in the system for me.
Anderson: One immigrant said to you, “I think the American Dream sometimes becomes a nightmare.” Does that capture the reality for some unauthorized immigrants?
Clusiau: I think in the experience of many of the people that we profiled that does. Many of them have this lure to come here, either out of fear or coming to ask for protection and asking for asylum, but once they are in and caught up in the system, the realization that what they believed it to be, it’s not what it is. And I think that’s an experience that people felt.
I think under this administration, they’ve instilled such fear into communities that it pushes these individuals even deeper into the shadows. And it becomes very hard to do simple tasks, such as going to get healthcare, going to the grocery store, getting a driver’s license. All of these things that even if you are under ICE and under a watchful eye, you aren’t allowed to do. So that idea of having any sort of stability while you’re waiting for your court hearings is nonexistent. I think a lot of people felt that this American Dream that they imagined it to be is not what it was cut out to be, but a lot of them still came out of fear because they had nowhere else to go.
Anderson: With your unprecedented access, what surprised you most about ICE and the U.S. immigration system?
Clusiau: For me, what surprised me most was definitely the weaponizing of bureaucracy, of how so much of the system isn’t just on the enforcement side or one ICE official. But the idea that everything is weaponized in a sense that the bureaucratic black holes for paperwork, that if you don’t check the right box, that for refugees to get your children it takes five years because their cases are in administrative black holes. We kept seeing that over and over again. And I think that was the most surprising, to see how these little things can really make it very hard for people and it exacts a human toll.
Schwarz: I second, all of that. People watch the show and they are angry with this officer or that officer, and I can understand that some of it is angering. But what’s angering to us is just how broken the system is. And the human toll that it takes on people, and all kinds of people, it’s documented and undocumented, people trying to get visas. People like to say, “Oh, it’s so complicated,” and scream we’re not getting anywhere. This obviously has been bad for a while and worse under this administration. I think it surprised me to see just how messed up it is and how unfair it is and how little common sense at the end of the day there is.
I think the show gives a lot of examples, but it’s just a drop in the sea of unfairness and it’s not like us. And my plea is for people from all walks of life politically to understand that maybe we can’t agree on everything, but there’s a lot that is broken. If it’s the immigration court reporting to the Attorney General and the wait times, then it’s not having a legal way to come here, so, of course, people will be coming the wrong way. If it’s a tactic to just scare the shit out of people so they will be fearful out of an idea that maybe they’ll leave, which clearly hasn’t worked, there’s just as many undocumented people here, they’re just not going to report crimes to police or they’ll be pushed farther into the shadows.
I could give so many more examples. It surprised me just how much people don’t understand it. And I think that’s our aim, to kind of anger people to say, “Look how broken it is.” How many Republicans really think we should deport veterans? I can’t believe there are many. I just can’t. How do we fix what we agree on? Because I think we can agree on some of this, that we’re better than this. And hopefully that’s the takeaway, that we start fixing a broken system and not weaponizing that broken system to create more pain.