Where are the Good Americans?
Immigration Nation is a 6-episode docuseries on Netflix. Filmmakers embedded with ICE for 3 years give us a behind the scenes look at ICE as it has shifted and expanded under the Trump administration. Episode 1, Installing Fear, weaves the stories of ICE officials with interviews of affected migrants and their family members. The result is an impactful look into the practices of ICE agents and how the people who are the targets of enforcement actions are affected.
The first agent we are introduced to is Scott, ICE Deputy Field Office Director, as he oversees Operation Keep Safe — a week long operation to bring in “fugitive aliens.” In 2003, there were 8 Fugitive Operations units and now there are 129. He is asked about people calling ICE agents Nazis and racists and he says, “We’re used to it. I love my job. I have a good stable home, make good money. To be called a Nazi, a racist, it’s…ignorant. We don’t pick people based on race, color, religion, we just look for people who are removeable.”
Another agent we meet is Judy. She says, “We constantly look like the bad guys when all we are doing is enforcing the laws and doing our jobs. It gets to me sometimes because I just feel like we have no respect.” Working for ICE for 12 years, Judy says the agents used to have “priorities” they had to follow, but “now the administration has changed and we’re finally able to do our jobs.” She is referring to the Obama administration’s focus to prioritize undocumented immigrants who had committed serious crimes. Now, under Trump, agents can focus on anyone with an immigration violation.
We are shown migrants who are being detained at the border and separated from their minor children. The series then switches back to NYC, where Judy is interviewed in her patrol car and says, with relief, that she and her fellow agents aren’t involved in the terrible business of family separation. She then knocks on the door of a family, politely asks the father to step into the hallway and explains that he is being detained and will be deported. The whole time, his small child is crying. The mom asks the officer if he can say goodbye and she allows it. He hugs his crying daughter until the mom has to pull her out of his arms and he is taken away. Although the hypocrisy is obvious to the viewer, somehow this agent has been able to separate what she is doing fromwhat is happening at the border. The reality is that she separated that father from his family.
One agent talks about walking into a donut shop and having an employee ask if the agent remembers him. The agent says the man looked familiar, but he wasn’t sure why. The employee says, “You deported my mom.” The agent replies, “I’m sorry, how long ago was that?” The answer: “Last week.” The agent admits that after a while, the people just run together and he stops seeing each individual. He then points out that he was in the military saying, “I was a soldier; I do what I’m told.”
Another agent profiled seems to recognize the unfairness of the current system and says that the immigrants he picks up are “just got caught up in politics.” He insists he doesn’t pick collaterals because it’s not fair (collaterals are people detained other than the “target” of a warrant. Under Obama, agents were directed to not pick up collaterals. The Trump administration has reversed that directive). We see him driving a man he has taken into custody who asks him, “Were you born here?” The agent gets quiet and eventually says, “That’s irrelevant really.” But the question highlights the injustice. Either the agent was born here and just by the luck of being born in one place versus another, he is the one placing the other man in cuffs; or he himself was born in another country, but because of different policies or circumstances, he was able to migrate to the US legally, while the man in his custody was not. The agent clearly recognizes this injustice, but continues doing his job.
Interviews with human rights lawyer Becca Heller are interspersed through the episode. She explains, “The brilliance of any bureaucratic system whose net result is fear and terror is that it’s big enough to break it down such that everyone just thinks that they’re only moving papers or only doing a little piece. A very small number of people at the top have designed the [immigration] system such that an incredible amount of terror results but those people [enforcement agents] are completely divorced from that.”
One agent noted that the laws change and those changes come from above, outside of the system itself. But, he says, “It’s written law. You just have to follow it.” He feels no responsibility for the laws or their impact, just their enforcement.
Interjected between portrayals of the agents, we are introduced to migrants, particularly Erin and Josué. Erin fled his home with his daughter when his wife was murdered in front of his daughter. At the border, she was separated from him and he just cries as he says he has no idea where she is or who is taking care of her. He has family in the United States and is eventually reunited with her. We see them boarding a bus to get to their family. He asks his daughter what happened while they were apart and she says the agents just kept telling her she would never see him again.
Josué left Honduras and made it to Mexico with his wife and 1- and 3-year-old children. He didn’t have enough money to pay a coyote to bring all 4 of them across the border, so his wife and the 1-year-old stayed in Mexico and he and his 3-year-old crossed. They were detained and his son was taken from him. In his interview, he explains that he has no idea where his 3-year-old is and that he hasn’t been able to communicate with his wife in Mexico.
Josué says that in his hometown “gringos” would come visit his church and they were so kind. He was optimistic about coming to the United States because of the kindness he had experienced. But now that he is here, he wonders, “Where are the good Americans?”