In one of many astonishing scenes in the six-part Netflix documentary Immigration Nation, a federal agent sent out to arrest fugitives gets a radio message from his boss telling him to nab some “collaterals” as well.
That’s the term for the unfortunate immigrants who aren’t on the list of targets for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid but happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I don’t care what you do, but bring at least two people in,” he is ordered. What that means is that he has just been cleared to arrest people who, unlike the fugitives on his list, aren’t accused of any crime.
“I don’t do collaterals. I just don’t think it’s right,” the ICE agent, identified only as Brian, says after he signs off. “Like if I get somebody that’s not cooperative, it’s a different story. But if you let me into your house and talk to me, I’m not going to roll your fingerprints and arrest you just because you’re here illegally. I know it’s my job, but I’ve got guys that are aggravated felons that I’d like to catch. I don’t care about the guy that minds his own business and is cooperating with me. Just for the sake of numbers, anyway.”
What struck me most in this chilling documentary is that quite a few of the ICE agents interviewed were wrestling with moral qualms over arresting immigrants who, while lacking authorization to be in the United States, happen to be good, hardworking people. Oftentimes, they have fled very dangerous situations in their homelands. It’s easy to see why the agents struggle to justify their work: every episode has long, emotional interviews with jailed immigrants whom ICE agents have torn from their children or other loved ones.
As an occasional observer of the immigration court in New York, I’ve seen this play out before. An immigration court is a deep pool of human misery, and the people facing deportation are not the only traumatized party. The heartrending stories they tell tend to ring true, but the hardships often fail to fit the contours of U.S. immigration law and, more recently, the Trump administration’s relentless drive to narrow its interpretation. And so, in case after case, very bad news is delivered to people who often seem to be heroes. The judges (who are hearing officers appointed by the U.S. attorney general, rather than judicial-branch adjudicators), the ICE lawyers, the immigrants’ attorneys: many of them seem stressed out by this work. Donald Trump’s contribution has been more than four hundred executive actions aimed at eliminating the last bit of breathing room for compassion that the law allows.
Burnout is frequent in criminal court too, where there is also plenty of injustice. But there is a difference in immigration court. In criminal court, every defendant has a lawyer; counsel is not provided in immigration court. The defendants in criminal court have at least arguably committed crimes; in immigration court that’s not necessarily the case. Some have been detained after being accused of relatively minor offenses, such as traffic violations. The penalty they face is not a fine or a few days in jail. Rather, there is an undetermined period of incarceration, followed by deportation and separation from their families.