The connections that eventually opened the door for the documentary project were made in 2011, when Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Schwarz raised the idea of doing a story about the agency’s immigration work, but he got nowhere.
Soon after Mr. Trump took office in 2017, Mr. Schwarz and Ms. 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 Mr. 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 two and a half 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 Mr. 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.