In the last month, the results of President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy have become resoundingly clear. Zero tolerance means tearing children from their parents, with no clear way of reuniting them, for the sole purpose of deterring people of seeking asylum in the U.S.
While we’ve seen shocking photos and heard heartbreaking audio clips of what this is like on the ground, it can be hard to get a sense for the scope of American immigration infrastructure. A new data visualization called “Torn Apart/Separados” analyzes a host of publicly available data on the locations of immigrant detention centers and children’s centers run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, as well as information on how public, private, and nonprofit organizations are complicit in the system. It paints a picture of the sprawling physical network behind the immigration crisis.
The site is the result of a six-day sprint by a group of eight historians and researchers from a range of institutions, including NYU, Columbia, Harvard, Salem State, University of Houston, and the University of Borås. Available in English, Spanish, and French, the visualization doesn’t include all available data, only information that could be verified from two different sources. The team faced ethical choices as well: They decided not to include the exact names of children’s shelters because their addresses were easily found via Google, and they didn’t want to expose the kids to any potential harm.
While the data is not complete, it does paint a picture of what goes on inside what they call the “immigrant detention machine.”
“What our data reveals is a shadowy network of government facilities, subcontractors from the prison-industrial complex, ‘nonprofit’ administrators paid over half a million dollars a year, and religious organizations across the country that, together, prop up the immigrant detention machine,” the researchers write on the visualization’s website. “Immigrant detention is a multibillion-dollar business and it’s happening in our own backyards.”
In the process of mapping the data, the researchers also found other digital traces of that machine on Google and Facebook, where families have left reviews of detention centers, and even on job posting sites, where a shady nonprofit has a lot of job listings for “youth care worker.”
The site also includes a series of scholarly reflections on the data, the project, and the context of this current moment. One, written by Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández, an associate professor of American, Mexican American, and Latino studies at UT Austin, offers a powerful call to action:
I ask people to look at the Torn Apart/Separados project, to see the density of the detention experience. We should feel and hear the screams of toddlers asking for mama and papa, to view and listen with empathy and a dose of humanity we are so severely lacking and think of them as our children, not enemy combatants. We need to do something to change this hateful moment we are living in.
Understanding the depth of the problem through data is just the start.