Torn Apart: Mapping the Geography of U.S. Immigration Policy

“You think it’s new but it isn’t.” – Dr. Nicole M. Guidotti-Hernández for Torn Apart 

A new activist digital project aims to map the still-unfolding horror of the United States’ “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

Torn Apart/ Separados is, in the words of its organizers, “a rapidly deployed critical data & visualization intervention in the USA’s 2018 ‘Zero Tolerance Policy’ for asylum seekers at the US Ports of Entry and the humanitarian crisis that has followed.”

The site (also available in Spanish and French) prompts you to walk through charts, pictures, and graphs to explore different facets of the infrastructure that enables the mass incarceration and family separation of immigrants. It focuses on different sites — the U.S.-Mexico border, ports of entry, policies of exclusion like the Muslim ban — but always implicates the entire U.S., past and present.  

Bar graph titled "Five Years of Detention" showing the number of people detained in ICE detention centers in the U.S. for the past 5 years. The number 44,859 represents the average daily population in detention

Number of people in ICE detention  via Torn Apart / Separados

The canvas of each visualization is a topographical map of North America, populated with data points that tell overlapping stories of the U.S. immigration system and its violence, through the numbers. The maps are accompanied by reflections from immigrant scholars and activists, who tell their own stories of encounters with borders, showing a crisis that spans time and place.

Financial charts break down the private companies that profit from keeping families in cages. Creeping blank space re-makes the map of the U.S. based on who it excludes. The border is not a single line but a net that ensnares everyone inside. Across the entire country, covering almost all the map’s blank space, are bubbles that represent detention centers, showing that ICE “is the American landscape.”

Topographical map of the U.S. with black circles representing Office of Refugee Resettlement child detention centers

Mapping Child Detention Centers via Torn Apart / Separados

While the organizers of the project were incredibly thorough and intentional about their research, there are many purposeful gaps: we do not know the experiences, or even the names, of those held in cages.

The project’s reflections help to fill this absence and do what statistics alone cannot – begin to map the human cost of “protecting our borders.” They help us to see the deep wounds of our immigration system and its massive scope, as well as how it involves all of us – by our silence, by our geographic proximity, by our humanity.

As Manan Ahmed writes, “The visualizations and data produced by this project, we hope, will let people see the cartographies of fear. Some will know the maps, and some will, for the first time, see.”

Check out the project here.

Header image via Torn Apart/ Separados

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