Imagine if one of the factors that determines your professional success is based on the number of human lives your work costs.
According to a horrifying documentary titled Immigration Nation, which premiered August 3 on Netflix, two of the factors the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses to evaluate the success of its officers are the number of arrested undocumented immigrants and the number of immigrants who die while trying to cross the border.
2019 was a particularly “successful” year in this regard. According to the UN International Organization for Migrants, 109 people died trying to cross the Rio Grande on the border between Texas and Mexico, a 26 percent increase from 2018. The tactic to force migrants to venture farther into the dangerous Arizona desert by means of the wall construction and other methods resulted in the deaths of 171 people, almost 30 percent more than in 2018.
The Immigration Nation project started in 2017 when filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz signed a contract with the ICE leadership to document the transformation of the agency into a much more aggressive entity following the victory of Donald Trump, the most anti-immigration president in the modern era. The final product of this attempt to improve ICE’s image turned out to be a catalog of incidents that betray a culture ruled by violence, cruelty, and the dehumanization of immigrants.
Clusiau and Schwarz filmed several ICE operations, including unjustified or illegal arrests, painful family separations, and the rejection of legitimate asylum applications that ended up in the deportation of applicants, putting them at severe risk of death.
The list of heartbreaking examples of cruelty documented by the filmmakers is a long one. A 63-year-old Honduran grandmother who applied for asylum to protect her 12-year-old granddaughter who was forced into marriage with a gang member ended up being deported back to her country. A father was separated from his young daughter, who was the target of mockery from ICE agents who told her she’d never see her dad again. A former police officer from El Salvador who had informed the New York Police Department about gang activity in his country was denied asylum and deported, even though he matched all legal requirements.
It’s no wonder ICE leadership tried to stop Immigration Nation. According to The New York Times, a top ICE official demanded that the premiere of the piece be delayed until after the November 3 election. On several occasions this official threatened them by saying that their small production company, and not giant Netflix, would pay the consequences of going ahead with it. They were also told that the demand for the delay came from “all the way to the top.” Finally, through attorney intervention, ICE dropped its demands and the documentary finally premiered on Netflix.
The methods and reputation of ICE moved far away from the border when the Trump administration deployed ICE’s elite unit, called Bortac, to repress peaceful demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter in Portland, Oregon. Wearing combat fatigues without any identifying insignia, they shot demonstrators in the face with “less than lethal” munitions, and repressed them with tear gas, flash bangs, and batons.
The wall and systemic racism are a blight on our national psyche. Yet, under the guise of defending law and order, the Trump administration is conducting itself like an autocratic regime that rejects the rule of law, the constitutional order, and the humanity of people of color. It’s our obligation to demand accountability for this inhumane behavior.
Javier Sierra is a Columnist with the Sierra Club. @javier_SC.
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