Immigration Nation
A still from 'Immigration Nation'. Image Credit: Netflix

If you watch only one documentary about immigration, then by all means make it ‘Immigration Nation’, a six-hour Netflix series that mixes reporting with an impressive amount of vivid ride-along observation.

Parts of it may start to drag or feel padded, but its see-the-whole-elephant approach to one of the United States’ most divisive issues has inherent value. It will almost certainly leave you better informed than you were before, even if its net effect may be to further entrench people on whichever side of the debate they already occupy.

Immigration to the United States is a story spread across thousands of miles, a variety of faceless government agencies and a tapestry of determined, often desperate, petitioners, and 'Immigration Nation' tries to cover as many facets as it can cram in. This includes the widely known ones, like child separation at the border, as well as less familiar angles, such as the exploitation of migrants who take on the work of natural-disaster recovery and federal attempts to co-opt local law enforcement into immigration agencies.

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A still from 'Immigration Nation' Image Credit: Netflix

Much of the time, especially after its more fluid and immersive initial episodes, the series takes a standard television current-affairs approach, and as you watch its segments you may recall sharper or more evocative reports on the same stories by shows like ‘Frontline’, ‘Vice’ and ‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’.

But the makers of ‘Immigration Nation’, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, benefited from time — they filmed for nearly three years — and a startling degree of access, particularly to agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement as they rounded up immigrants, processed them for (mostly) deportation, and spoke to the camera about how it made them feel. And in the series’ first two hours, the results of that embedding, with ICE operations in New York, Charlotte, North Carolina, and El Paso, Texas, can be startling and engrossing.

Part of that effect comes from seeing agents push the boundaries of legality — most strikingly, how they routinely enter apartments when “invited” by cowed, uncomprehending immigrants, in a way that’s surprisingly similar to what you’d see in a TV cop drama. (Maybe that’s where they learnt it.) Once inside the home of the target, probably an immigrant accused of a crime, they frequently find “collaterals,” additional people who can be rounded up simply because they’re undocumented.

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A still from 'Immigration Nation' Image Credit: Netflix

Material like that, and worse — like an agent picking an apartment building’s lock — gained ‘Immigration Nation’ some pre-release publicity, particularly when The New York Times reported that ICE had pressured the filmmakers to delay the release and remove footage.

But the real impact of the show’s early episodes isn’t the outrage you may feel over the thuggish tactics. It’s the wearying, demoralising depiction of a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, one that churns through the lives of people it takes little notice of — as if your trip to the DMV meant not just standing in an endless line but then being shackled and put on a plane to Central America.

The scenes inside field offices and detention centers, as agents bluffly banter with the people whose lives they’re destroying and then joke with one another about funny accents and kung pao chicken, might have been written by Kafka, except his dialogue would have been better. The series’ hallmark is not an image but a sound bite: the agents’ endless variations on “I may not like it, but it’s the job.” Human rights lawyer Becca Heller sums it up: “When you add up all the people just doing their job, it becomes this crazy, terrorising system.”

'Immigration Nation' provides abundant evidence for things that some might call fake news, like the determination of ICE, under the Trump administration, to remove immigrants from the United States in bulk regardless of whether they pose any danger. As one of the disarmingly honest agents says, “They want to get rid of everybody, I guess.”

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A still from 'Immigration Nation' Image Credit: Netflix

That will be the takeaway for those who want to make political points from the series, from either direction. In the later episodes there are wrenching individual stories, like that of a Guatemalan grandmother seeking asylum and sitting for more than a year in a Texas detention centre, though these segments tend to indulge in superfluous scenes of inspiration and tearful condolence.

But what sticks with you from ‘Immigration Nation’ is its up-close depiction of the banality of deportation — of the huge disconnect between the everyday people of ICE and the Border Patrol and the everyday people they detain, arrest and “process.” (In El Paso, a morning meeting at a detention centre ends with the chant “1, 2, 3, processing!”)

Agent after agent expresses ambivalence about the job that is given its most extreme expression by an Arizona ICE investigator, who says, “I put my personal feelings aside, which, yeah, maybe that’s what every Nazi said, right?” But he immediately adds, “I actually believe in the cause of trying to enforce some sort of sovereignty over our borders, and no one’s figured out a better way to do it yet.”

It’s a nice summation of the schism within the country at large that will keep us talking past one another despite the filmmakers’ best efforts.