Among the yuletide firsts that can almost certainly be claimed by Samantha Bee and her Full Frontal TBS Christmas On I.C.E. special tonight is a joyful little musical rhyming of “holiday season” with “lies and treason.”
“Maybe the first,” Bee conceded of the lyric during a recent chat with Deadline, “but maybe not the last.”
Set on a festively decorated set – complete with indoor skating rink, and featuring guest appearances by Jeff Goldblum, Ana Gasteyer and others, including a surprise visitor from Bee’s Daily Show past – Christmas on I.C.E., like the usual episodes of Full Frontal, presents the newsy through the comedic, but this time around focuses on a single issue (the “I.C.E.” pun gives it away): immigration, or, more specifically, the Trump administration’s very un-Christmasy treatment of migrants seeking asylum, complete with immigrant families still torn apart.
In one segment, Bee travels to the Texas bus station (The New York Times has called the place a “New Ellis Island”) where confusion, fear and silence fill the air as the recently detained board buses to towns where, with luck, relatives await.
Another segment finds correspondent Amy Hoggart tracking down those purveyors of holiday cheer – farm workers who supply the nation’s Christmas trees – only to discover that many of the workers aren’t here exactly legally. It’s a War on Christmas you won’t see on Fox News.
And then there’s Bee’s husband, Jason Jones, showing off his hockey goon skills in a rather surreal bit as I.C.E. personified, taking slap shot after slap shot to show how I.C.E., or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, is chipping away at our civil rights (trust me, it makes more sense on screen). The bit also features Olympic skater Adam Rippon.
And finally, in the special’s capper, Bee unveils the TBS-funded six-bedroom house donated to El Refugio, an organization that works with detained immigrants and their families at the Stewart Detention Center in the remote town of Lumpkin, Georgia. The renovated house provides free lodging and meals to friends and family members who have been separated by I.C.E., and also provides lodging for volunteer lawyers and interpreters. Read more about the house here.
Here, Bee talks to Deadline about, among other things, how she got TBS to buy and renovate the house, her visit to a Texas border town and the inspirations for Christmas On I.C.E. “It sickens me that we are making this process so cruel,” Bee says candidly of the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. “It’s overwhelming.”
Christmas on I.C.E., from Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, will air commercial-free on Wednesday, Dec. 19 at 10:30 pm ET/PT on TBS. A portion of money raised will benefit KIND’s Family Separation Response Team.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Deadline: Christmas On I.C.E. has to include the first rhyme of “holiday season” with “lies and treason,” right?
Samantha Bee: Probably the first, maybe not the last.
When did you decide to visit the Texas bus station now known as “the new Ellis Island?” Where did that idea come from?
We knew that we wanted to do an entire episode on the immigration crisis. We’ve certainly talked about it many, many times on the show, but we wanted to do something fuller, something to raise money, so once we started pitching thoughts about it, the whole thing kind of came together. It came together just because of this brilliant team of people I work with quite honestly, and it came together quickly. I think we started working on it in early October.
There was an article in The Times that referenced that bus station in McAllen, Texas, as being kind of like the new Ellis Island. You want to put your eyeballs on these things as much as humanly possible, so we were like we should definitely go, go to the border just to be there, just to see that bus station, like what does it look like now? Not everybody is held in detention for a long time. Some are. Some aren’t. Some are released with ankle bracelets and a court date, so it just felt necessary to be there as the launch point for the whole [episode].
We’ve all read about places like that bus station and the detention centers, but it can be difficult to come up with a mental picture of what actually goes on.
I’ll tell you something about the most striking part of being at the bus station. The people are coming through, obviously they’re shell-shocked. I mean, they’ve come a really long way, various ways actually, to get there. They’ve been held in detention. They’ve gone through the shelter system. But once they get to the bus station, the most striking thing about it is how quiet they are. If you were sitting with your back to the entrance, you could look around and there would be 100 people behind you and you would not have heard them. It is like they are pin-drop-quiet.
Really it’s just incredibly confusing and overwhelming. We meet a woman in the piece who is a volunteer with Angry Tias and Abuelas, which is a really small group of volunteers and they just literally go to the bus station every day and help people sort out their bus tickets. There are so many different languages and dialects being spoken that it’s hard to find people who can translate everything but often we met so many people who had been in detention, been through the shelter, gotten there and suddenly they’re trying to get to Wisconsin. They’re in a Greyhound station, they do not speak English, they’re provided with an envelope that says “Help me, I don’t speak English. Can you help me get on the right bus?” They don’t even know what the piece of paper says, you know what I mean? They just need help to get on the bus, and so these volunteers explain their bus tickets to them. We met a family trying to get to Minnesota. They have six bus tickets. It’s a 3-day trip on six different buses. So they just have reams of Greyhound tickets with different destinations and times on them. And no winter coats, going to Minnesota. It would be confusing for anybody.
It all seems designed to frighten, intimidate and discourage.
It’s quite overwhelming and I really just…it’s so…it sickens me, it sickens us that we are making this process cruel. It’s already a really difficult journey with peril along the way and confusion and second-guessing and it takes a brave person to pick up everything and leave. You’ve got to have a compelling reason. You’ve got to believe that America is going to be a better place for you, a safer place for you. And then to meet them with cruelty that doesn’t need to exist is…I find it…it’s overwhelming.
In another segment of the special, we meet [an undocumented] Christmas tree farmer named Juan…
Listen, so much of the work that is done in this country is built on the backs of undocumented workers and I don’t know why people don’t want to face that. I don’t understand. I don’t know why people don’t want to see that. I’m like, See it. It’s real. See it.
How did that particular segment come about? It’s a great idea.
That idea was pitched by Tyler Hall, who’s an amazing film producer here. We originally wanted to go to the harvesting of the White House Christmas tree, but in researching one story it often leads you down another path. So we scratched the surface and went, my God, so much of this work is being done by undocumented people and not only that, they all have been getting rounded up by ICE and further to that, they’re often rounded up in North Carolina and transported to a place like Stewart Detention Center 10 hours away. So probably Christmas tree farmers who would’ve been in our piece that we shot in North Carolina would be in the detention center in the town that we later went to, Lumpkin, Georgia. People are taken away from where they have any kind of roots, removed from where you have friends or family or some little network of connection, and put in a very remote place. It wears you down, it makes it harder for you, it makes it immensely more difficult for you to contest your deportation or make a claim of asylum.
Let’s talk about the house. How did that come about?
Well, Stewart [Stewart Detention Center, Lumpkin, Georgia] is one of the largest, if not the largest, immigrant detention center in the United States. And that piece was born out of the Christmas tree piece really. When we scratched the surface, we learned that there’s only really one permanent full-time lawyer in the town for 1,800 detainees and that’s Marty. I think he lived in Atlanta and he was coming to Stewart so often because all of the cases that he one day decided he should get some place to just crash there. He came to love it so he lives there permanently now but he’s the only one who lives there permanently, and he has a little double wide in his backyard and other lawyers will come and crash there if they have to. There’s a couple of lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center there, but he’s the only permanent full-time lawyer in town and there’s nowhere to stay. The nearest hotel is an hour away. It makes it very difficult to have proper legal representation. It makes it very difficult if your spouse lives in North Carolina and has to drive 8 or 10 hours to get to youI. And it’s expensive to stay in a hotel.
So as soon as Tyler pitched the idea (of donating a house) I started texting TBS. I was like hey, we have a crazy idea: Do you guys want to buy a house? And they were excellent about it. As soon as they heard the idea, they were like that’s a great idea. I was so excited about that. I was so excited about that idea and then everything came together quickly. We bought the house. It had been on the market for a little while. It didn’t close until the end of November. We found a contractor who was willing to do the work that needed to get it up to code, like to bring it, honestly, into this century. It’s a very old house. We found a contractor who had a team that was available and very interested to do it and able to do it and they gave it their all. These teams worked around the clock really to make the house habitable by the time we wanted to shoot in it. And they did an incredible job and it’s absolutely lovely. It’s a place where you imagine you could get a good night’s sleep or just have a meal or have a meeting with an attorney. So I think it will be well used, and it’s walking distance to the detention center.
Congratulations. And one last question: At what point did your husband, Jason Jones, realize he was going to get the opportunity to skate for the special?
You know, he grew up in Canada too so he actually played hockey and he loves playing hockey. I’ve asked him to do lots of things for my show. This is the only thing he ever said yes to.