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In Immigration Nation, the United States’ number one export is cruelty

In Immigration Nation, the United States’ number one export is cruelty


Netflix’s documentary series chronicles the depth to which US immigration policy has become a callous machine

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There isn’t much that is new about Immigration Nation. Netflix’s six-part documentary series about American immigration law enforcement depicts what news stories have long chronicled: a constant, almost mundane parade of indignity and horror inflicted on the undocumented in America. The reportage, no matter how dogged, has seemed to have had little effect. After the initial visits from dismayed politicians, families are still being separated at the border, and pandemic response measures mean ample opportunities for further abuse. There is room, then, for a visual document on the most widely used streaming platform dedicated to plainly depicting this specific and uniquely American injustice. It’s also damning that it’s even necessary.

Immigration Nation is the most repulsive thing I’ve watched in some time, simply by virtue of its subject. Across six hours, the show follows US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers on raids, at detention centers, and attempting to integrate with local law enforcement. It shows immigrants in detention centers, immigrant veterans living in exile after deportation, and immigrant bodies found at the border. It’s a chronicle of monstrousness, and it thrives on the public’s willingness to look away. 

Presented through the lens of ICE ride-alongs, observations of ICE publicists, and interviews with personnel, the apparatus the United States has constructed for the dehumanization and punishment of undocumented immigrants is astonishing in its shamelessness and efficiency. In one raid, ICE officers — who stress they are only going after “criminals,” although the definition of criminality appears to be exceedingly lax and encompass misdemeanors as well as felonies — explain what they mean when they say “collateral.” It’s when, in the process of looking for one undocumented immigrant alleged to be guilty of some crime, they find others, who they then arrest anyway, even if they do not meet their established criteria. 

We see ICE take advantage of immigrants who open the doors to their home when they don’t have to, we seem them misrepresent themselves as local law enforcement, we see them operate without warrants and refuse to show them to anyone. They say they’re doing a job and that someone has to do it. 

Every now and then, ICE officers want the cameraperson to know they have scruples: they’re not involved with that family separation crap, they’re only after violent criminals, they’re just following orders. Every now and then, the mask slips: they do what they do because they can provide for their families. It’s a good job. They try not to think of the families their work destroys. 

a chronicle of monstrousness, and it thrives on the public’s willingness to look away

Immigration Nation does pull back the scope to show the institutional forces at play here: namely, the farce of our current system of legal immigration (which John Oliver illustrated succinctly a year ago), but also the ways capitalism incentivizes the dehumanization of undocumented immigrants. The series visits a detention center, a place of limbo where immigrants are held indefinitely — not under arrest nor free to leave. The vast majority of these are run by private companies, profiting off people to whom we do not afford rights. 

However, as Carlos Aguilar writes in The Playlist, Immigration Nation curiously leaves out our political history with the nations people attempt to emigrate from, neglecting to illustrate the ways the United States has meddled in Central and Latin America, fostering the economic and political instability that makes it untenable for people to live in the nations in which they were born. The show also focuses on “good” immigrants, like the immigrant veterans who served in the US military only to be deported with almost no hope of returning home. People who have, in other words, earned the right to be treated humanely by the United States. 

The weight of all this is suffocating. We’ve created a perfect trap, one where we can exploit people for their labor and military service and tax revenue and deny them basic human rights, a humane or sensible path to citizenship, or asylum. This cruel machine is self-sustaining and has the potential to run indefinitely. Its power is beginning to creep, extending to American citizens currently engaged in protests. Its bureaucracy can outlive all of us, and as long as it does, our chief export will be cruelty.