I struggle to write anything useful about the Netflix documentary Immigration Nation because whatever I say can never do honor to the torment and distress and razor cruelty on display during every second of every episode.
For some reason known only to the gods and the Department of Homeland Security, executive producers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz were given three years of open access to the operations of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). What they managed to capture is startling in its overall range and depth, but there are moments when I see what they have recorded and am stunned by its intimate surgery of the death-dance that the immigrants and the agents are forced to share by this administration. (More than once I said to myself, "How did they ever get that shot?") Though, as is clear again and again in every story in every episode, the dying never happens to the agents—they are just the escorts, absolved of any guilt by the mantra of "just enforcing the law."
It is also clear, as noted in episode 5 by John Amaya, a former deputy chief of staff at ICE, that whatever the law says is "the right way" to seek entry into the United States, the policy from the government (at least in his personal opinion) is "to tear families apart, which to me is unconscionable, and bring them maximum pain and use [the pain] as a deterrent."
Some may look at Immigration Nation (if they look at it at all) as fake news, a partisan take-down of ICE, a leftist argument for open borders, an anarchist attack on American culture, a slur against the police. But it was ICE's belief, when they granted the two filmmakers access, that the end product would justify their work and compliment them for doing it. Several articles detailed ICE's effort to dilute the documentary and block it from being shown when the producers delivered the goods, most of which were beaten back. (Clusiau and Schwarz did agree, reluctantly, to blacking out the last names of the agents who spoke on camera.)
In other words, the ICE agents were taken aback when the people they saw in action on the screen came across as underlings rather than heroes, janissaries rather than protectors.
But as shocking as the xenophobia and cruelty is, it shouldn't be that shocking. After all, what is American history but a succession of civil wars fueled by hatred and fear of the Other (even if that Other is one's next-door neighbors), with occasional pauses for a collective hatred of some other Other that "unites" the nation (the Germans, the Japanese, Al Qaeda) until the citizens can get back to their usual work of hating others and hoping to secede from them.
As Richard Kreitner points out in Break It Up: Secession, Division and the Secret History of America's Imperfect Union, division is, and has always been, something of a national pastime. Robin Wright, in "Is America a Myth?" in the September 8, 2020, issue of The New Yorker, partial-lists the secession movements that have spiced up American history, and as she notes, "today, America is littered with prideful secessionist movements": Texit (Texas), Calexit (California), Verexit (Vermont, which was an independent republic from 1777 to 1791), the Texas Nationalist Movement, Cascadia (a northwestern bio-republic carved out America and Canada), and secessionist efforts in Alaska and Hawaii, the last two states to join the union.
All Immigration Nation brings to the fore is another rendition of our secessionist blood sport. It should shock us, dismay us, wither us, but it should not surprise us because rather than the United States of America, we are, and always have been, the Untied States of America, and things are only getting looser by the day. Wright quotes Yale historian David Blight as saying, "in the interior of our minds and our communities, we are already in a period of slow-evolving secession … we are tribes with at least two or more sources of information, facts, narratives, and stories we live in [and] a house divided about what holds the house up."
Yet the myth of American unity dies a hard death. George Packer, in The Atlantic of October 2020, talks about the "plastic hour," crucial moments in history when, using the words of philosopher Gershom Scholem, "it is possible to act. If you move then, something happens." Packer seems to think America is in such an hour and that there is an infrastructure for effecting "an era of radical reform that repairs our broken democracy" led by American citizens with "a longing for connection to a unifying American identity."
Packer likens the repair of American democracy to "a complex medical rescue," and he has faith that these American citizens will be able to perform "just the right interventions, in just the right sequence, at just the right speed: amputation, transfusion, multiple-organ transplant, stabilization, rehabilitation."
But will the citizen-surgeons even agree to wear masks? Will red North Dakotans commit to saving lives in blue New York City? Will amnesty be granted to those who harvest the crops? Will reparations be made where they can be made? Will anybody give anything up so that others who don't have can have?
Some will. Most won't. And we already know this.
There is, of course, no solace or solution in knowing this, but the dismay of knowing is deepened by the wrenching irony of watching people migrate from the ends of the earth to establish lives on American soil at a moment when so many already inhabiting that soil have little or no faith that living here has any value that they are bound to respect, nourish and enlarge.