‘Immigration Nation’ Filmmakers Reveal How Team Trump Tried to Block and Censor Their ICE Documentary
Filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz open up about making their six-part Netflix docuseries exploring ICE’s enforcement of Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy.
Donald Trump does not want you to see Immigration Nation. In fact, according to filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, his administration tried to strong-arm them into delaying their Netflix docuseries on Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) cruel implementation of the president’s zero-tolerance immigration policy until after the 2020 election.
“There were so many asks that just were completely out of line,” Schwarz tells The Daily Beast. “After some pushes and shoves that didn’t work, we were asked by the ICE spokesman to delay it to November [after the election]. They tried to pin it on the fact that we said it would only come in November—which is not true, because we said it would come before November 2020 on multiple occasions. We strongly said, ‘No, and you have no right to ask that.’ During the process of this back-and-forth, we were made aware by the spokesman that the frustration came ‘all the way from the top.’”
After viewing Immigration Nation, it’s easy to see why Trump and his cohort want potential voters to steer clear of the project. (ICE did not respond to our emailed questions.)
ICE agents are captured tearing suspects from their crying children in the dead of night; finding extralegal means to enter apartments; refusing to present search warrants; mocking shackled detainees; and trying to keep their arrest numbers up at all costs. And the lion’s share of the blame for their aggression is placed on the broad shoulders of Trump, who has rapidly accelerated ICE’s war on immigrants by seizing nonviolent offenders and “collaterals,” or people who happen to be present during a raid but are not wanted for a crime, establishing “production quotas” for immigration judges, and keeping detainees locked up for months before processing their cases.
Last August, when a series of large-scale ICE raids on food-processing plants in Mississippi produced startling images of separated children crying for their disappeared parents, Trump remarked, “This serves as a very good deterrent. When people see what they saw, like they will be for a long time, they know that they’re not staying.”
“I saw them as getting more and more aggressive because of the polarization in the administration and the language, and they had this feeling when Trump came into office like, Yeah, they have our back!” offers Schwarz, who also says he observed many of the ICE agents and officers with Trump paraphernalia in their offices, from stickers and figurines to “FAKE NEWS” hats. “We did see that. I think it’s highly influential, to be honest. There’s a style in Trump’s language, and I’m more comfortable calling that racist, and you see that melting down into some people. There are certainly some non-Trumpies who serve in ICE, but I think they’re quieter.”
So how did Clusiau and Schwarz, who are a couple, convince one of the most controversial government agencies in the country to allow them to film their processes for nearly three years, from mid-2017—around the time the Trump administration, guided by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, introduced zero tolerance—to 2020?
It began in 2010, while Schwarz was making the documentary Narco Cultura, about narco traffickers and the war on drugs along the U.S.-Mexico border. The film contains a number of scenes depicting Homeland Security officials’ investigations of suspected criminals in Arizona, which led Schwarz to befriend a public affairs officer within ICE. As that friendship blossomed, Schwarz asked—under the Obama administration—if ICE would be open to a documentary. They turned him down flat. Then, when Trump was elected, Schwarz and Clusiau had lunch in D.C. with that same ICE public affairs officer, who had risen up the ranks by then, and to their surprise, they said yes. That kicked off a months-long negotiation between the filmmakers and various ICE officials until they reached an agreement.
“We had a multimedia contract with them—one that any production company that works with a government agency has,” explains Clusiau. “There were three things that they were able to review: factual inaccuracies, law enforcement-sensitive information, and anything that was a privacy violation. During the review process, they did start to ask to edit more scenes that didn’t put them in a favorable light. We were able to refute a lot of these things.”
“They extremely widened that scope,” adds Schwarz, “and when we didn’t comply, or when they made ridiculous claims—which were numerous—that intensified things.”
Among these claims was the removal of a sequence showing ICE agents in New York City conducting a legally questionable search of a residence and rounding up several “collaterals.” ICE argued that since the scene includes agents using a high-tech fingerprinting machine on the men, it fell under the umbrella of “law enforcement-sensitive information.” (Schwarz and Clusiau won that battle after finding press releases touting the technology.) The government agency also demanded that the last names of ICE agents and officers be removed from the film to avoid potential harassment—and the filmmakers reluctantly complied. Schwarz and Clusiau contend there were “a handful” of other “strong scenes” that ICE ordered to be removed, but they wouldn’t specify what they were for legal reasons.
ICE also pressed for the removal of any criticism of Trump, none of which is present in the final version of the docuseries.
“Some of their pushback when we wanted to put out the show was, ‘Don’t talk about Trump negatively.’ It was almost like, ‘You can’t say anything negative about our Great Leader,’” says Schwarz. “And that did seem to go down the chain. It was something that repeatedly came up. They even tried to invoke the Hatch Act, which is a ridiculous legal excuse to not talk about Trump. So it was something that they tried to push and censor.”
Several of Immigration Nation’s more candid moments see ICE agents opening up about how they’re frequently compared to modern-day Nazis.
“I have a good, stable home. I make good money. To be called a Nazi, a racist—it’s ignorant. It’s ignorant,” says one ICE field officer. “We don’t pick and choose groups of people based on race, color, religion. We just look for people who are removable.”
Schwarz says the filmmakers “didn’t want to throw ICE under the bus,” and he feels these comparisons are mostly unfair.
“I think when you say, ‘I’m only doing my job,’ it does sound like the Nuremberg defense. But we do have to put this in proportion. I’m Jewish and my extended family died in the Holocaust, so it’s a different story,” he says. “To be honest, they struck me as motivated by a lot of hate towards what they do. I think the heated debate and the Trump administration’s at best very questionable immigration policies really put them in a position where to ‘protect the brotherhood,’ so to speak, you have to do certain things that show a little less compassion, and with DHS, what we saw in these years is the bullies rose to the top. That sets a tone.”
“We wanted to use it as a way to profile this bigger system and the human toll that it takes on families, immigrants, lawyers, advocates, and even ICE officers,” adds Clusiau. “This system chews everybody up. The system is broken and it needs to be changed.”