Immigration Nation Asks How Do We Fix The Unfixable?

Documentarians Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz discuss their new Netflix series, Immigration Nation, and how to build a more perfect immigration system.

Immigration Nation

There’s a moment in the trailer for Netflix’s docuseries Immigration Nation that’s understandably garnered quite a bit of attention. In it, camera operators sit in the back of a van filming an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent on the job. The agent’s superior calls and says via speakerphone “I don’t care what you do but bring at least two people in.”

After the call ends, the agent says to the documentarians in the back, “He knew you guys were with me, right? Because that’s a pretty stupid thing to say.”

As developed by Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, Immigration Nation isn’t an exercise in “gotcha” storytelling by any means. Clusiau and Schwarz set out to capture a comprehensive picture of the United States’s broken immigration system and how it has changed in recent years. But due to the near totality of their access to ICE and its detention centers across the country, there are quite a few “gotchas” thrown in there all the same. 

Schwarz worked with ICE previously in 2011 while making his first documentary Narco Cultura about drug smuggling. Schwarz reached out to his ICE contact in 2017 with this concept and he and Clusiau were granted unprecedented access to the inner workings of the controversial division of DHS. If this seems like a bad decision for a governmental agency whose employees engage in people-snatching quotas, ICE eventually agreed, with the Department of Homeland Security trying to intimidate the couple into not releasing the series

But Immigration Nation is now out on Netflix all the same. And it’s about much more than merely ICE’s questionable PR tactics.

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The six-episode series was shot over three years and seeks to understand the story of modern immigration in America through the daily workings of ICE agents, activists, attorneys, and undocumented immigrants. Contextualizing a nation of immigrants fear of immigrants is a tall task but it’s a task that Immigration Nation’s six installments are certainly up for. 

We spoke with Schwarz and Clusiau about the experience of bringing their project to life. 

DEN OF GEEK: When developing this concept, did you envision it as a feature or an episodic experience?

Christina Clusiau: From the beginning on this one we definitely wanted it to be an episodic series. We knew we had access to ICE and we really wanted to take an approach from an inside-out lens. Because when you’re inside the system, you get access to both the enforcement officers and to the individuals who are caught up in it. We were trying to create an arc of their lives from when they’re inside, to when they leave the system and the effects on their families that are left behind, those that have been separated, and the reunification of families in all of this.

Shaul Schwarz: The vision was episodic and was exactly what came out of it. From the moment we had access to ICE, we did not intend it to be a Cops kind of show only. We wanted to be a fly on the wall, inside the system, that tracks immigrants in quarantine and tells the stories of both the enforcers and the enforced. I think that just actually came pretty much exactly how we had hoped it is. 

What consideration went into deciding what topics would be introduced in each episode? It seems like there’s the overarching story of ICE and DHS throughout the series, but, in almost Wire-style, each episode introduces a new element to the system.

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Shaul: To the Wire thing: our tagline opened up with, “In a Wire-like look at the immigration system…” Literally, that was the initial idea. What was hard about it was there was so much ground to cover because it’s such a complex issue. To that effect, there’s been so much change (within the system) as well that we have to balance that and figure out how to make a show out of it. We wanted to open with episode one “Installing Fear”, that shows how enforcement has radically changed, because I do think that was what set up the understanding of today’s immigration landscape. 

Usually you tell people “immigration” and they’re like, “So how was it on the Southern border?” But we were filming in New York in the beginning. ICE is actually the enforcement that is not protecting the border. It’s dealing with immigration inside the country. That was very important for us to, right off the bat, change that up and key you into the new reality and how that has pushed people into the shadows. Maybe an average New Yorker doesn’t understand that this cat-and-mouse atmosphere that’s been set is played in LA, Chicago, and many other places. 

Christina: Each area of the nation we profiled was different from one another, and we are approaching different issues within all those. New York was more about enforcement. El Paso, Texas is a detention center story of family separation, which is happening there. Charlotte was a worker’s story and delved more into local politics. I remember very early on we had a cut-out construction paper back on the wall of different places we were looking to go. 

You mentioned this is quite the sprawling endeavor. Practically, how did you go about filming? How many people did you have involved? How many cameras did you have? What was travel like?

Christina: Logistically, it was chaos. We had to be very nimble. We had to be able to jump at a moment’s notice. As for the team, overall, there’s around six of us shooting about 75%, 80% of the series.

Shaul: Christina and I both come from photography so with our prior films we shot almost everything. Here, it was not possible. So many things were just breaking in a moment. You never know when a detainee is moved. Now you can get access. Now, this operation is happening. In a weird way, we started to get more disciplined about what we run after, but you also have to stay extremely open minded.

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For example, we met six parents who were separated from their families in El Paso Detention Center in the first few days that we spent there. Only three would make the show because of our ability to track their stories for a long time and not just make it about one strong moment. A lot of that was like that. It’s like working in this unknown because the drama is unfolding over a long time. We had great access to ICE, but we can’t go everywhere all the time. 

This is a question that you’ve undoubtedly gotten a lot already and will continue to get, but I feel compelled to ask it myself. Why on earth did ICE go along with this? Why did they think that this was a good idea?

Christina: That’s a really good question and I’m always conflicted by that. I think at the beginning, it was because of a previous connection that [Shaul] had with a spokesperson at ICE, and working on another story with him.

Shaul: Regardless of headlines or our fight at the end, we came in at a moment when the spokespeople knew they would come under fire. ICE is a law enforcement agency and that’s already a sensitive issue, as we can tell very clearly today, of police accountability. Under this administration, they understood that they’re going to come under a lot of heat. I think they wanted to let someone show what their real daily life looks like. We’re very grateful for that and we’re not cynical about it, and I think we did just that.

Sure, there are moments that are uncomfortable, I hope the viewer doesn’t just come away and say, “Oh my God, that cop is such an ass.” It’s bigger than that. Sure, maybe there are some bad apples, but a lot of ICE officers we saw were actually put into this incredible, difficult position. I’ll give you an example. Judy is an officer in episode one who is going to a house to take the target of her investigation, and suddenly the man has a child. That is just inherently part of her job and it’s an extremely hard position to be in.A lot of people will ask that question, a lot of people maybe will be cynical, but if you think about it deeper, we can’t just throw those individuals under the bus, and I don’t think the show does. We have to think about our broken immigration system. And every person in ICE agreed that it’s broken, whether they were right wing or left wing. 

Christina: As filmmakers, too, we like complexity. We like taking issues that are challenging, polarizing, and divisive and have the viewer question what they thought they knew. I think that’s something we expressed very early on. From our previous work, we felt that we were able to take an issue that was very polarized and make people question it.

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Shaul: Christina’s referring to Trophy, which was about trophy hunting. People expect that in Trophy we just shame these people. But, the truth about trophy hunting, and generally the idea that animals have some kind of value that equals money, and that could be part of conservation, is complicated. That is part of our journalistic and director style, to take that issue and flip it on its head and, quite frankly, often anger you as a viewer so you will be moved enough to dare to ask questions. I think that’s what we did with this law enforcement agency.

Obviously, the follow-up there is that ICE didn’t necessarily go along with it afterwards, What was it like to go through that experience – where DHS is trying to block your film as you cut it together.

Shaul: We can’t dive into the legal for obvious reasons, but I don’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s haunting. We didn’t do a “got-you” piece and it didn’t change even after we were attacked. We didn’t fight to put more. If we wanted to do that, we could have done six hours of that. At the end of the day, we did get to tell our story, pretty much in full. It’s about the story and not about us, and I hope the show speaks to that. It’s a hard position to be in. I truly mean that from, unfortunately, our experience.

We are lucky enough to have a status, to have an amazing legal team. Most undocumented people don’t. I think we saw some parallels in systemic abuse of the system and I think they have a lot less tools to deal with. In their case, it literally destroys lives and families. 

While watching, I couldn’t help but wonder how hot, sticky, and uncomfortable it must be in a lot of these facilities by the border. Though the visuals from the series are striking, film is still limited to visuals and audio. Were there any lingering sensations, smells, or experiences that you recall from filming this and you don’t think the film could fully capture? 

Shaul: I don’t think anybody would understand what it really means to walk through the desert for days. That is definitely something that’s hard to capture. Also when you are taken into 26 Federal, the (ICE) headquarters in New York, you could go to anywhere – more than 200 holding facilities. You’re constantly moved and it is impossible to track you. It was impossible for us to keep up with that. For a family or for legal representation to actually be able to just stay in touch is so overwhelming. Those are the two that immediately come to my mind that were so hard to convey.

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Christina: The desert. Just the vastness, the heat, and all what Shaul just said. But also the feeling of being detained. I think it’s something that is very hard to visualize and imagine – the actual emotion that goes into it for many people. To be in those facilities for such a long time, I think there’s a lot of feeling of hopelessness, a lot of feeling of loss, and a lot of feeling of trauma that was very hard for us to bring forward.

The tagline of the series asks “how do we fix a system that seems beyond repair?” As people who just spent years experiencing it and documenting it, do you have any insights on what are the first steps that we could take to fix that system?

Shaul: I think that this is an issue that’s been over-polarized. It’s complicated and we certainly don’t agree on some things, but I think we can all agree on more than you’d think. I’ll give you examples. Are there really many people that want to deport our veterans? I truly don’t believe that. I don’t believe that American people will think that’s right. I also don’t believe that the American people will think that we should abolish ICE and have no immigration police. I don’t believe that we should have a court system that’s backed up with a million cases of people who sit in private funded detention centers for upwards of a year. It’s just wrong. There’s a lot of examples like this. I think the first thing we have to do is educate the people that this is what’s happening. It’s gone bad under this administration but, in all honesty, it’s been bad for a while. Latinos called Obama “deporter-in-chief.” Bill Clinton created a lot of laws that mak\de people like these veterans deportable. 

This issue is that it’s become emotional for people and I just want to remind everyone of something very basic. Unless you’re Native American, somewhere down your line maybe recently, maybe further back, your people came here. People came here. Some of them were legal, some didn’t have “papers”, but ultimately it has made this country better. I truly believe that. We have to take some of this heated rhetoric out of and be able to say, “You know what? On this 50%, we don’t agree, but on this, we do.” We should fight to make it better because it makes us better, it’s the American way and we treat people with dignity. We need to bring that back.