‘Immigration Nation’ Directors on Embedding with ICE, Documenting the Human Toll of Policy

Before embarking on their multi-year journey to document the plight of immigrants under the Trump administration, filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz entered into a contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

While this did not given the agency approval over the final product, which is a six-episode docuseries entitled “Immigration Nation” launching on Netflix Aug. 3, it was meant to ensure an agreement that the material they released would “be factual, and [cognizant of] sensitivities and privacy issues.” Such multimedia union contracts are not unusual, Schwarz tells Variety, and in this case, signing it allowed the directing duo unprecedented and unfiltered access inside one of the most polarizing government agencies.

“We would spend hours in the car with them, as they’re doing surveillance or driving from place to place,” says Clusiau. “Once you start talking to a person as a human, you start to understand more where they’re coming from in their job. And I think under this political climate and the way that things are in the nation, the ones who are boots-on-the-ground have a really hard job to do. I think a lot grapple with it. Some agree with the policies, some don’t; there’s a big spectrum there.”

Embedded with agents for 2 1/2 years, Clusiau and Schwarz followed agents as they knocked on doors looking for specific individuals but picked up additional immigrants (called “collaterals”) as well. They filmed inside ICE offices, just steps away from holding cells, as well. But “Immigration Nation” was never meant to be “a cop show,” Schwarz points out. The agency access they received allowed them to start their story there, looking at policies and practices “from the inside-out lens,” Clusiau says, the enhanced, aggressive tactics enforced by ICE agents to fill high arrest quotes are only one piece of a much larger broken system.

“Our show is ultimately a large part about an enforcement agency, and police accountability and social justice is at the forefront of this debate,” Schwarz says. But “it’s not a ‘gotcha’ piece — if we wanted to make a ‘gotcha’ piece we could have thrown a lot more in.”

In order to provide a fuller picture to the immigrant experience, they followed specific individuals’ stories — from those who are undocumented, to those who have experienced family separation and even those who were deported. They covered the bureaucracy that has led to more raids on illegal immigrants and longer waits for status updates for those in the country who are self-reporting; they visited rights groups such as ACLU of North Carolina and Resilience Force to witness some of the more grassroots endeavors underway around arrests and as wage theft; they even visited the border wall in Mexico, as well as a patch of desert known to be deadly for those crossing illegally.

There were challenges in getting some of their subjects to open up, let alone agree to be filmed at all: “We went out to California and nobody wanted to show their face because they felt they were so hated there,” Schwarz says of ICE as an example. But the majority of the people profiled, Clusiau adds, “felt that they felt there was an importance, for themselves and their community, to not continuously be in the shadows.”

Adds Schwarz: “When people were tangled in the system, even in interviews, they actually wanted their story told — because, to some degree, when you’re already entangled you have a little bit less to lose and you’re a little bit more wanting to share your truth. Those that did speak, I salute them for their courage, because a lot of them were taking risk and are still taking risks.”

To minimize those risks, Clusiau and Schwarz blacked out many surnames when interviewees’ chyrons appeared on screen. Primarily, this was the case ICE officials, which Schwarz notes was not part of their contract, just a “courtesy” ICE “requested during the review process.”

To further make subjects comfortable, he shares that whenever they were following ICE ops, the film team would always “separate ourselves from ICE and say, usually in our broken Spanish, ‘We’re independent journalists. We’re not with [ICE]. May we come in? May we document?’” If the person said no, they respected that.

Although Clusiau and Schwarz did not know, when they first embarked on this docuseries, if any of the immigrant stories they were telling would have joyful moments, let alone happy endings. While they “always had the intention,” Clusiau says, of infuing some hope into their project, there were too many unknown, and at times seemingly random, factors at play with regards to who might be reunited with their children who had been taken to separate detention centers or were still in other countries, awaiting approval to enter the United States, for example. So when they managed to capture one or two of those moments, they “became very important,” she admits.

“Has it been a dark three years? Yes, definitely. Does it break your heart? More than I can ever tell you in words,” adds Schwarz. “We can’t stop caring about this, that’s my opinion. We’re destroying so many lives, and it’s almost un-American. Our heritage is a nation of immigrants; we all — unless you’re a Native American — came here one way or another, and a lot of them came with papers but some didn’t. We came believing this country had some values, and I think it’s part of the beauty of the American dream really. That’s been challenged, and these people hurt. We are historically better than this.”

One of the most complex pieces of “Immigration Nation” was that policy was changing as they were filming. Although the show does not feature episodic end-cards with updates on where some of the key individuals within the series are today, Clusiau and Schwarz acknowledge the possibility of following up “in any medium,” especially if policy changes again after the November presidential election.

With “‘bring the boys back home,’” Schwarz says, “Biden has promised that, and we hope and dare Trump to promise that. The immigration system is broken and it has been so politicized that people just scream without thinking or listening or acknowledging the human toll. We wanted the viewers to understand that we should care more and there’s stuff we can agree on. We shouldn’t accept that the system destroys lives. We should change some things.”

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