Filmmakers’ look inside US immigration crackdown draws legal threats

Caitlin Dickerson
The San Diego Union-Tribune

In early 2017, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement prepared to carry out the hard-line agenda on which President Donald Trump had campaigned, agency leaders jumped at the chance to let two filmmakers give a behind-the-scenes look at the process.

But as the documentary neared completion in recent months, the administration fought mightily to keep it from being released until after the 2020 election. After granting rare access to parts of the country’s powerful immigration enforcement machinery that are usually invisible to the public, administration officials threatened legal action and sought to block parts of it from seeing the light of day.

Some of the contentious scenes include ICE officers lying to immigrants to gain access to their homes and mocking them after taking them into custody. One shows an officer illegally picking the lock to an apartment building during a raid.

At town hall meetings captured on camera, agency spokesmen reassured the public that the organization’s focus was on arresting and deporting immigrants who had committed serious crimes. But the filmmakers observed numerous occasions in which officers expressed satisfaction after being told by supervisors to arrest as many people as possible, even those without criminal records.

“Start taking collaterals, man,” a supervisor in New York said over a speakerphone to an officer who was making street arrests as the filmmakers listened in. “I don’t care what you do, but bring at least two people,” he said.

The filmmakers, Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, who are a couple, turned drafts of their six-part project called “Immigration Nation” over to ICE leadership in keeping with a contract they had signed with the agency. What they encountered next resembled what happened to Mary L. Trump, the president’s niece, who was eventually sued in an unsuccessful attempt to stop her from publishing a memoir that revealed embarrassing details about the president and his associates.

Suddenly, Clusiau and Schwarz say, the official who oversaw the agency’s television and film department, with whom they had worked closely over nearly three years of filming, became combative.

The filmmakers discussed their conversations on the condition that the officials they dealt with not be named out of fear that it would escalate their conflict with the agency.

In heated phone calls and emails, they said, the official pushed to delay publication of the series, currently set to air on Netflix next month. He warned that the federal government would use its “full weight” to veto scenes it found objectionable. Several times, the filmmakers said, the official pointed out that it was their “little production company,” not the film’s $125 billion distributor, that would face consequences.

Unnerved, the filmmakers said they began using an encrypted messaging service to communicate with their production team. They installed security cameras in their office and moved hard drives with raw film footage to a separate location, afraid of ICE’s increasingly aggressive tactics.

“Experiencing them is painful and scary and intimidating and at the same time angering and makes you want to fight to do the story,” Schwarz said.

Jenny L. Burke, the press secretary for ICE, said the agency is “shocked by the mischaracterizations made by the production company,” and “wholeheartedly disputes the allegations brought forward by filmmakers of this production.”

She said the agency pushed back against the film only within the confines of the agreement Schwarz had signed, and that the couple, not the agency, caused delays in the review process. She added that in the many collaborations the agency had embarked on with other media outlets, ICE officials had never been accused of bullying.

“The men and women of ICE perform outstanding work daily that often goes unnoticed or is misrepresented to the point of falsehood,” Burke said in a statement. “ICE is firmly committed to carrying out the agency’s sworn duty to enforce federal law as passed by Congress professionally, consistently and in full compliance with federal law and agency policies.”

The connections that eventually opened the door for the documentary project were made in 2011, when Schwarz, an Israeli journalist who first came to the United States as a foreign correspondent and later became a naturalized citizen, embedded with a local ICE field office in Arizona for a project about drug cartels. It never published, but Schwarz became friendly with the public information officer who coordinated the embed.

Over the next several years, the officer rose through the agency until he was promoted to oversee the press office at its Washington headquarters. A few times, while Barack Obama was still president, Schwarz raised the idea of doing a story about the agency’s immigration work, but he got nowhere.

Soon after Trump took office in 2017, Schwarz and Clusiau, a former photo editor for Time magazine who grew up in Minnesota, traveled to Washington and asked the official to lunch, pitching the idea of a documentary series examining how the agency would evolve as Trump carried out his promise to crack down on immigration. The lunch led to a meeting where the filmmakers convinced high-ranking officials to sign off on the project.

The filmmakers’ lawyer, Victoria S. Cook, negotiated a contract with strong protections for their journalistic independence. It allowed for ICE to review drafts of the series before it was published. But the agency was allowed to request changes only based on factual inaccuracies, violations of privacy rights or the inclusion of law enforcement tactics that could either hinder officers’ abilities to do their jobs or put them in danger. Matthew T. Albence, the current acting director of ICE, signed on behalf of the government.

Over the next 2 1 / 2 years, the couple filmed a sweeping look at the federal immigration enforcement system, discovering many inherent contradictions.

They followed Border Patrol tactical agents who took pride in rescuing migrants from deadly dehydration even as the agents acknowledged that their tactics were pushing the migrants further into harm’s way. They showed how the government had at times evaluated the success of its border policies based not only on the number of migrants apprehended, but on the number who died while crossing.

They followed refugees who fled their home countries because their lives were in danger, who had been vetted over several years before their number was called for resettlement in the United States. The filmmakers showed that after Trump was elected, many of those refugees with preliminarily approved cases were placed instead in indefinite administrative limbo to satisfy promises the president had made to cut refugee resettlement numbers.

The filmmakers watched ICE officers on the front lines struggle with the impact of their work on immigrants and their families and cling to the notion that they were simply doing the job for which they were hired.

“I started seeing a lot of officers that I don’t think really believe in it,” Schwarz said. “But I think you hang on to this kind of stuff because it’s not fun to actually look in the mirror and think about the complexity of what you are a part of.”

In the end, ICE’s leadership expressed frustration that the documentary, which was supposed to be about ICE officers, included the stories of so many immigrants.

The film showed several parents who were separated from their children at the border, including one father whose 3-year-old son had been pulled away in tears while clinging to his father’s leg.

One scene the agency sought to delete showed officers entering a home seeking a certain immigrant; they ended up arresting that person and two of his roommates, who had been asleep in bunk beds.

ICE officials told them that the scene revealed sensitive law enforcement tactics by showing a machine used for fingerprinting. The filmmakers pointed out that the same machine was featured on the agency’s website. Then, officials said the scene had to be deleted because some of the people shown in it had not signed privacy waivers. But those shown had each signed two different release forms, the filmmakers said, and the agency backed off.

ICE threatened to subpoena their raw footage of the scene in which an ICE agent picks the lock of an apartment building to reach the home of an immigrant who is being targeted for deportation, claiming there would almost certainly be an internal investigation into the incident, and that including the scene would cause the officer to get fired.

The filmmakers said they came away with some empathy for the ICE officers, but became convinced that the entire system was harmful to immigrants and their families.

The problem, they said, was summarized in the first episode by Becca Heller, the director of the International Refugee Assistance Project.

“Is a government agency evil? No. Is every single person inside ICE evil? No,” Heller told the filmmakers. “The brilliance of the system is that their job has been siphoned off in such a way that maybe what they see day to day seems justified, but when you add it up, all of the people just doing their job, it becomes this crazy terrorizing system.”