Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Only Obeying Orders

'Immigration Nation', the six-part documentary series on immigration enforcement under Trump  was released on Netflix this month. The US authorities did not want you to see it. After viewing a final cut, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), which had allowed the film-makers, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, to embed with agents for over two years, attempted to intimidate the production team into delaying the release. The agency threatened Clusiau and Schwarz with lawsuits, according to a New York Times report, and to use the “full weight” of the federal government to block publication of certain Ice scenes usually invisible to the American public.

 It is clear why the agency did not want the footage to become public. Immigration Nation, more than any other documentary of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, allows Ice agents and officials to explain their perspective. And thus more than any other documentary, 'Immigration Nation' reveals how a government agency upholds and perpetuates evil. Two-plus years of Cops-style embedment doesn’t glorify Ice agents, but instead reveals the agency to be populated by, in some cases, callous people who gloat over arrests; more often, affable people fulfilling their small part of the contract as directed, with the compartmentalization it requires.

'Immigration Nation' captures Ice agents manipulating confused people to admit them into their homes (agents cannot legally enter unless given permission), mocking people in custody, presenting inaccurate figures to mislead the public and in one case, illegally entering a residence by picking a lock. But more often, Immigration Nation reveals the individual justifications that compound into a punishing system, and the rationalizations that allow said system to metastasize. Clusiau and Schwarz embedded with agents in New York, in the “detention center” in El Paso, in a center in Charlotte, North Carolina, in Arizona. In each of these places, agents and officials explain their work through a common phrase that runs like a mantra throughout the series: “I’m just doing my job.”

“I’m a soldier, I was in the military before – I do what I’m told,” says Arturo, an Ice deportation officer in El Paso. “We are a politically driven agency. If you change the law, that’s the law we’re going to follow,” says Joe, the officer in charge of the El Paso detention center. “I’m not a judge,” says a deportation officer of non-detainees (often, people who have lived for years or even decades in the US or arrived as a child, and whose deportations, once deprioritized, have been encouraged by the Trump administration). “My job is just to remove you … it’s not personal, it’s just business.”

As Becca Heller, the director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, explains, “But when you add up all of the people ‘just doing their job’, it becomes this crazy, terrorizing system.”

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