On Father’s Day, Alex Gil was IMing with his colleague Manan Ahmed when they decided they had to do something about children being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border.
Since May, the US government had taken more than 2,300 kids away from their families as a result of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ new “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which calls for criminally prosecuting all people entering the country illegally. Reports started surfacing of the ensuing chaos at the border; in one especially horrible case, a child was reportedly ripped from her mother’s breast. As outrage grew, the question came up over and over again: Where were the children? Between the ad-hoc implementation of “zero tolerance” and the opaque bureaucracy of the immigration system in general, migrant advocates, journalists, and even politicians struggled to find clear answers.
Gil, a father of two, knew they could be useful. As the digital scholarship librarian at Columbia University, Gil’s job is to use technology to help people find information—skills he had put to use in times of crisis before.
Gil and Ahmed, a historian at Columbia, assembled a team of what Gil calls “digital ninjas” for a “crisis researchathon.” These volunteers were professors, graduate students, researchers, and fellows from across the country with varied academic focus, but they all had two things in common: an interest in the history of colonialism, empire, and borders; and the belief that classical research methods can be used not just to understand the past but to reveal the present.
They set up a Telegram chat and a master Google spreadsheet, and then they began looking for any publicly available data—government immigration records, tax forms, job listings, Facebook pages—they could use to isolate and locate the detention centers that could be holding these children.
The result of their week of frantic research is Torn Apart / Separados, an interactive web site that visualizes the vast apparatus of immigration enforcement in the US, and broadly maps the shelters where children can be housed. The name is meant to evoke not only the families who have been separated, but the way in which this sundering rips the social fabric of our country.
“It shows that ICE is everywhere,” Gil says. “We ourselves were shocked even though we study this. A lot of America thinks this phenomenon is happening in this limited geographical space along the border. This map is telling a different story: The border is everywhere.”
Digital Humanities and Crisis Response
The group behind Torn Apart is a part of a growing vanguard known as the digital humanities, an interdisciplinary cohort of researchers who combine 21st-century technical skills and classical research practices to do a new kind of cultural interpretation—and sometimes activism. DH projects include historical and cultural research, archival preservation, crowdsourced mapping, social justice activism, or some combination of those things.
“Our team is the perfect example of what Digital Humanities can be: a body of work that really cuts across units at universities, libraries, departments, and roles like faculty administration and staff to think about the ways digital tools can help us better understand culture,” says Roopika Risam, a professor of English and library fellow at Salem State University and author of New Digital Worlds, about promoting equity and justice in the digital cultural record.
Risam, Gil, Ahmed, and Torn Apart teammate Moacir de Sa Pereira, who teaches in NYU’s English department, are all members of Columbia’s Group for Experimental Methods in the Humanities, or XPMethod, which is “dedicated to the rapid prototyping of speculative ideas.” They were joined last week by Sylvia Fernandez and Maira Alvarez, graduate students at the University of Houston who specialize in literature of the borderlands and who co-founded Borderlands Archives Cartography, and Linda Rodriguez and Merisa Martinez.
This is not the first time XPMethod has responded to a humanitarian crisis with a map. Last year after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, aid groups struggled to transport food and supplies across the island, a problem made worse by the inadequate and out-of-date maps that were available. The XPMethod team and 60 other volunteers from 25 institutions held an emergency mapathon to crowdsource maps and get them to people in the field. After that experience, Gil put together a toolkit so that other people could set up what Gil refers to as “nimble tent”—a popup team of digital researchers collaborating on a specific project in response to crisis.
Their “nimble tent” work is driven by a need to be part of the solution. It’s the same urge that’s driven so many people in recent weeks to post on social media and raise money for advocacy groups helping immigrant families. The internet, with its vast and ephemeral nooks and archives, is a tantalizing resource in moments of social unease. For anyone with enough digital savvy and the ability to work quickly, the nimble tent model offers a way to do something, anything in response to crisis, even from halfway around the world.
Building Torn Apart
After a day of phone calls on Sunday, Gil and Ahmed had their team, but their mandate wasn’t immediately clear. The most urgent problem, as they saw it, was that parents couldn’t locate their children. While President Trump signed an executive order Wednesday to end the family separations, instead allowing indefinite detention of families together, little has been done to resolve the issue.
Under the zero tolerance policy’s initial implementation, when the government detained a family for crossing the border illegally, at first everyone was in the hands of Customs and Border Patrol, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security. But once parents were charged, they were sent into an ICE detention facility and their children were handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. As WIRED and others have reported, these agencies are not set up to keep track of families as a unit, so parents trying to find their children have had very little luck. Many children and parents haven’t been able to reach other by phone since being separated.
The Torn Apart team knew there was information out there about the locations of detention centers, and which centers could hold children. That information just wasn’t aggregated in one place—a problem they set out to remedy.
First, the team looked through a trove of official ICE records released to journalists through a Freedom of Information Act request. It gave them the broad picture of where US detention centers are located, but they still needed to understand where children were being held. Risam began tracking down nonprofit facilities that contract with HHS and ORR to care for children. The ICE data referenced 113 youth shelters and their general geographical locations, but the names themselves were redacted. Then Risam found data compiled by Syracuse University in 2015 that listed the names of shelters where immigrant children had been transferred, and from there she was able to identify the nonprofits associated with them.
With the nonprofit names in hand, Risam went looking for their corporate 990 tax documents, which gave her locations that she could cross-reference with the ICE data to map where immigrant children are held. What she found “feels very much like a patchwork of shelters,” she says. Sa Pereira visualized Risam’s work by demarcating 113 ORR shelters, including nonprofit, religious, and government-run facilities, as black dots on the map. Try to click on one, though, and it will move, suggesting how the government resists pinpointing these sites.
Housing migrant children has been big business since a flood of unaccompanied minors began entering the US in 2014. Nearly 11,000 children are held in these facilities, according to HHS. Risam wasn’t able to see which ones definitely held the children newly separated from their parents under Trump’s policy, but mapping where children generally are allowed to be held at least gave some insight into where they could be.
The team also used less official data. Gil found Facebook pages and Google business listings for detention centers, where parents were desperately posting asking where their children were. They combed through confirmed news reports of where children had been taken, and where detentions centers were known to be. (You can find all their data sources on the website.)
They slept little. Gil ordered pizza for his kids instead of making dinner most nights. With the blessings of their institutions, they cleared as much time as they could to focus on the project. “It has taken a lot of emotional and mental energy,” says Alvarez, who along with Fernandez mapped the legal entry points along the border for a section of Torn Apart called “The Trap.” For both women, the week was intensely personal. They grew up in the borderlands and used their experience to seek the right data—to look for pedestrian crossings versus commercial entry points, for instance.
To the team’s surprise, immigration detention facilities were not isolated at the southern border. Rather, it was a vast web that crisscrossed every state in the nation. Even the centers that hold children are farther from the border than they expected, in places like the Northeast. This, the team realized, was the story they had to tell: how immigration enforcement reaches into every part of America.
Much of the team’s conversation during the week focused on how to display the information so families, journalists, and advocates could actually use it. They also needed to “strike a balance,” as Risam puts it, between raising awareness, protecting the privacy of the children, and discouraging harassment. Gil is aware some people might want to track down phone numbers and addresses of detention centers and harass the staff. “That can turn into a mess real quick and do more harm than good,” he says. Ultimately, they decided to show the city and state a detention center is in, but not the actual address or name of the facility, in the hopes of dissuading bad behavior.
The website, which Sa Pereira coded, is full of design choices meant to not just impart information but also to evoke a more visceral reaction. In one particularly moving visualization called the Eye, Sa Pereira positioned satellite photos of ICE detention centers over the continental US. The thumbnail grid itself is jarring, but click on one, and you zoom across America to the town or city in which the center sits. It’s dizzying. These centers are often right in the middle of everyday urban and suburban life—in a nondescript New York city, for instance, or in a strip mall next to a nail salon.
“You get that voyeuristic creepiness of looking at satellite imagery, but also a creepiness of recognition that this could be anywhere. This isn’t in the desert surrounded by barbed wire, this is down the street,” Sa Pereira says. “Children being put into cages is terrible, and it’s indicative and symptomatic of a much larger problem. This is a way to make that system visible.”
Torn Apart achieves this with maps, as well as testimonies, visualizations, and what Gil calls “textures,” personal and surreal ephemera like parents asking where their children are in a Google business review or promotional material from SouthwestKey, a nonprofit immigration shelter corporation, boasting that “95 percent” of the population it serves are people of color.
A Living Resource
It is more than information. It is a living resource, one the team hopes migrants will use to find their families and that researchers will build upon. Much of the project’s power is in its archival potential. “No one is documenting what is happening in everyday life of migrants,” according to Fernandez. “This is a digital historical record.”
As the team was finalizing Torn Apart Friday, the Washington Post published its own crowdsourced map of detention centers housing migrant children, which included some but not all the inputs gathered for Torn Apart. Gil is trying to get in touch with the paper to offer the rest of their data, and to cross-reference Torn Apart against the Post’s data. The researchers’ work dovetails with investigative journalism: The goal of both is to use information to make sense of confusion.
The site went live at 12:30 pm Eastern time on Monday. The team can hopefully get some sleep, but the project is not over. Outside researchers will now peer-review it. Half of the Torn Apart crew are now in Mexico for the annual Digital Humanities Conference, where they will hold another researchathon.
“It’s like a hot potato,” Gil says. “Now we want to pass on the same data source to other teams to refine and tell their own story.”
Updated to clarify that Gil and Ahmed came up with the idea for Torn Apart in an IM conversation.
Correction at 7pm: Moacir de Sa Pereira’s full last name has been corrected on second reference throughout the article.