Released in August, the six-part Netflix documentary “Immigration Nation” goes behind the scenes of immigration policies and enforcement under the administration of US President Donald Trump.
The series features footage obtained by camera crews embedded with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field operations offices across the country from 2017 to 2020. It also follows people harmed by enforcement crackdowns, from families separated by Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy to community activists in Florida and North Carolina to an undocumented Marine Corps veteran facing deportation.
Immigration Nation captures questionable ICE tactics — including ICE officers using lock picks to illegally enter residences without warrants and retaliating against uncooperative local law enforcement agencies by increasing ICE presence in their communities. Realizing that the documentary would reflect poorly on ICE, the agency even pressured the filmmakers to delete certain scenes and delay its release until after the US presidential election in November 2020.
Here, InSight Crime examines how Immigration Nation shows US immigration enforcement's effects on private industry, human smuggling, and migrants' safety.
Privatization Drives Profiteering and Corruption
In the United States, for-profit companies are heavily involved in managing incarceration facilities and other parts of the criminal justice process. Immigrant detention is no exception, and ICE’s subcontracting practices have turned immigration enforcement into a billion-dollar industry.
According to Alan Gomez, a USA Today immigration reporter interviewed in Immigration Nation, ICE only operates five of the 220 facilities used to house detained migrants across the United States, contracting the management of the other 215 to private companies.
With little oversight, these private prison companies charge detainees exorbitant fees for services such as calling cards and food from facility commissaries. In some facilities, detainees can sign up to work laundry and other jobs — but for no more than a wage of $1 per day.
“[The corporations’] client is ICE. The detainees, they’re more the product,” Gomez told filmmakers.
The potential for profit means that companies have a vested interest in seeing harsher immigration policies implemented. After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the stock prices of CoreCivic — a company that runs private prisons and detention facilities — doubled.
During sting operations, the filmmakers capture how officers tally how many immigrants they have detained, while supervisors back at the holding cells count heads every few hours to see if daily detention quotas have been met. On several occasions, ICE officers are shown making “collateral arrests” — detaining those not targeted by the warrant but who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — in order to meet quotas.
In the first episode, an ICE director radios in to one of his field officers: “I don’t care what you do, but bring at least two people in.”
“He knew you guys were with me, right?” the field officer comments to the cameramen. “Because that’s a pretty stupid fucking thing to say.”
This obsession with numbers results from federal funding guidelines. ICE files its funding requests based on “operational costs,” which are in large part derived from how many detainees are present in a facility, according to a 2018 report from the Detention Watch Network and the National Immigrant Justice Center.
The same report highlights that 79 percent of detention facility contracts do not have expiration dates, meaning that there is no scheduled timeline for review of contractor practices in most cases.
The immigration process is profitable for private companies in other sectors, too. According to the Miami Herald, ICE has paid two flight charter companies close to $500 million to run deportation flights since the start of Trump’s term — about $35,000 per deportee.
Deterrence Policies Benefit Smugglers, Endanger Migrants
In its final episode, Immigration Nation outlines how the United States' immigration strategies have boosted the operations of transnational criminal groups while jeopardizing the lives of migrants.
In 1994, the Border Patrol released a strategic plan that reoriented the agency around a new strategy of “prevention through deterrence.” By refocusing enforcement efforts around urban points of entry, the idea was to redirect migrant flows towards more difficult and exposed entry points to facilitate their capture, as anthropologist Jason de León explained to filmmakers. In the long term, the Border Patrol hoped that the strategy would convince migrants that attempting to cross was “futile.”
This policy has been bipartisan consensus since has been further driven by the acceleration of the border’s militarization after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. According to the American Immigration Council, a DC-based nonprofit focused on immigration, the Border Patrol’s budget has more than quadrupled since 2001.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US/Mexico Border
Advocacy groups say that “prevention through deterrence” has turned the desert in the southwestern United States into a gauntlet for migrants, forcing them to risk injury, dehydration and exhaustion as they attempt to navigate inhospitable swaths of uninhabited, sun-scorched terrain. A recent New York Times investigation noted that by the Border Patrol’s own estimates, at least one migrant has died along the Southern border every day for the past 22 years, with half of those deaths occurring in the Arizona desert.
Strikingly, for the Border Patrol, this rise in fatalities actually indicates the policy’s efficacy. A 1997 evaluation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that a rise in migrant deaths could indicate that “prevention through deterrence” had been successful in “forc[ing] aliens to attempt mountain or desert crossings.”
In Immigration Nation, the filmmakers capture several upsetting examples of “prevention through deterrence” in action. In one scene, a Border Patrol helicopter flies low to the ground, attempting to disorient a group of migrants with dust and noise. In another, activists with human rights group No More Deaths, which gives water and first-aid to migrants, tell filmmakers how Border Patrol officers repeatedly vandalize water jugs.
Trump administration immigration policies are also shown in stark display, including its “zero-tolerance” policy, which led migrant parents to be separated from their children, and its “Remain in Mexico” metering policy, which has left migrants seeking asylum stranded in dangerous Mexican border towns.
“I do believe that the strategy is to separate families and cause them maximum pain, and use them as a deterrent,” John Amaya, former deputy chief of staff for ICE under President Barack Obama, told filmmakers.
The filmmakers also interview a human smuggler with the Sinaloa Cartel, who makes clear that he has profited from the crackdown at the US border.
The smuggler estimates that he can charge each migrant between $7,000 and $8,000 per crossing attempt. Those who try to circumvent the smuggling syndicates risk retaliation, while the increased profit margins incentivize smugglers to take greater risks with the lives of their clients.
Ironically, Border Patrol has listed one “indicator of success" as being “increased alien smuggling fees," according to its own documents.
As Immigration Nation makes clear, “prevention through deterrence” actually benefits the criminal groups that US border agencies spend so much time claiming to fight.
At the same time, the policy does not discourage migrants from making the journey to the United States.
“I have crossed the desert eleven times,” Javier Cruz, a deportee who lived 42 years in the United States, told filmmakers. “I think this time will be the last.”