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Immigrant Nation: A Broken System and Episode Breakdown

Updated: Feb 12, 2021

Immigrant Nation is a crash course in ICE policy not only over the past two years but from the last two decades. This series is undeniably relevant with an unprecedented look into ICE proceedings. The show creators, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz pitched the idea for the show directly to an ICE spokesperson and spent three years travelling around the country filming ICE's operations for this series. And when ICE first saw the rough cuts of the series they tried to delay it until after the 2020 election. Each episode centers around a different aspect of immigration with every episode selecting two or three individuals or organizations and their stories. Here's a breakdown of each episode.

Ep.1: Installing Fear

  • In 2003 there were eight ICE units, ICE standing for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, today there are 129 units. The first episode of this series begins by following the first day of ICE operation "Keep Safe". Throughout the episode the main focus is on the way the ICE removal policy has shifted from prioritized immigrants with serious criminal offenses to all undocumented immigrants, under the new administration. This was known as the "Zero Tolerance" policy. The show explains the concept of "collaterals", a fairly common occurrence, where non-targeted individuals are removed on the basis of wrong place, wrong time. The second focus of this episode is on two fathers who have been separated from their sons for months. At the time over 2,300 parents had been separated from their children. This was a partially a result of the new "Zero Tolerance" policy. ICE Detention facilities did not have the capacity to be holding the mass amount of people that were being detained and deported. This led President Trump to sign an executive order that temporarily stops the separation of families prosecuted for crossing the border, only seven weeks after the new policy had been put in place.

Ep.2: Maintaining Vigilance

  • Follows another father in his struggle to be reunited with his son, even after the executive order had been made. Episode two also delves into the court process and addresses some misconceptions. All immigrant courts and judges report to the Attorney General and are a part of the Executive Branch. This means that the judges must follow with the orders they are given by the Attorney General. One of the big orders they must meet is a production quota. Paul Schmidt, a former immigration judge states, "the objective of the system seems to have become to produce more areas of removal, not necessarily more justice." Throughout the series the idea of a "number game" is reinforced. When watching ICE raids it often seems a competition to have a higher number of arrests. This episode also discusses the seemingly arbitrary way in which the decision of deportation seems to be made, something that will be brought up again later in the series.

Ep.3 :Power of the Vote

  • Episode three introduces the issue of deported veterans. Over 550,000 immigrants have served in the United States military. The episode follows the story of a marine named Cesar who after being deported is currently living undocumented in America. The episode sees him trying to gain a pardon from the governor of New Mexico, which would allow him to live in the U.S. as a legal resident. The episode alternates between his struggle and the North County sheriff's election happening in North Carolina. Knox County was a participant in the 287(g) program. The 287(g) program was created as a way of expanding ICE presence. Through the program state and local police officers would collaborate with the federal government to enforce immigration law. In the past, the 287(g) program has been costly for localities, has not focused on serious criminals, and has harmed the relationship between police and local communities. This election focuses on the efforts of Comunidad Collectiva to vote in a sheriff that would do away with this program.

Ep.4: The New Normal

  • In an interview with VanityFair the show creators said, "We’ve seen ICE under Trump really be much more aggressive in a lot of places. But one thing they haven’t been that aggressive on? Worksite enforcement, as they call it. They have not cracked down on California, even though it’s a sanctuary state, about so much farming. Or about people milking cows in Vermont. Or obviously, notoriously, Trump’s usage of that kind of workforce. So there’s a double standard there." This double standard is further explored through a look at the immigrants who follow hurricanes and other natural disasters to work to rebuild to areas in the aftermath. However, many of these workers wind up experiencing wage theft and often feel there is little they can do about it under fear of deportation. Resilience Force is an organization working to represent these workers and to ensure payment for their work. This episode focuses specifically on the wage theft occurring within the company Windfall, owned by a local politician, while also flipping back to the aftermath of the Knox County elections.

Ep.5: The Right Way

  • One of the biggest comments made about undocumented immigrants is that they should "do it the right way", this episode explores what that means and why it is so difficult to do so. The focus of this episode is on asylum seekers, which make up 20% of the people in ICE custody. We follow two individuals whose stories have very different outcomes. The first is Berta, a 63 year old women who entered the country legally with her granddaughter as they escaped MS-13 who had threatened to kill them both after Berta had stopped a member of the gang from attempting to marry her granddaughter. She was detained in ICE for 17 months. Here we see the way in which deportation becomes arbitrary, as Berta met all the qualifications to allow residency and yet was still deported despite the threat to her life. We also see the story of Deborah Jane who was originally from Uganda but, after suffering an acid burn due to separating from her husband was relocated by the U.N.. However, her children were relocated to Kenya and faced five years of paperwork to try and bring them to the U.S. with her. The U.N. works to resettle individuals after extreme vetting but does not allow individuals to chose which country they end up in. What makes Deborah's case even more difficult is how low the numbers for allowed asylum seekers have dropped, going from over 100,000 to 30,000. Additionally, another focus is the "Remain in Mexico" policy, which affects all those looking to get in line to come to the U.S. legally. The policy requires Mexico to house and organize the migrants for what can take years before they are allowed into the U.S.

Ep.6: Prevention Through Deterrence

  • The last episode of Immigrant Nation is also, what I would say, the most gruesome episode. Over 3000 bodies have been recovered from the desert, all of these migrants who have died in their attempts to cross the border. Even since 1994, the Strategic Plan or "Prevention through Deterrence", the number of bodies in the desert have only been growing. The plan called for the redirection of migrant traffic into more dangerous terrain in order to try and deter them from making the attempt. However, the bodies have only been increasing. This plan has also been a way for cartels, who transport drugs and other illegal contraband, to force immigrants to rely on them for transport at exuberant prices. This episode ends the series with the words of an ICE officer, "I can't tell you how exhausting it is day in and day out, to be putting cuffs on people that you honestly can't blame for what they did. They didn't kill your wife. They didn't set of a bomb somewhere. They didn't rob a bank. Doing exactly what I would do in their situation".

This series takes an undeniable emotional toil on its watchers. A toil that can in no way be compared to those whose lives are actually at stake. This series makes sure not to lose any humanity in the swath of facts and statistics provided. Yet, the show has come under some controversy as some people consider much of the footage to be trauma porn. Trauma porn is film or any kind of media that continually shows the suffering of individuals. This can sometimes lead to a sense that their suffering is being exploited or that their suffering must be on visible display in order to be empathized with. This can often seem quite dehumanizing. However, I believe that Immigrant Nation still presents value in its look into ICE's perspective, showing the way in which the organization and its people think and operate. For anyone who has had the luxury of being unaware of the issues presented, this series is an eye-opener and educator.


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