By Alex Calderwood.
Sarah Stillman, director of the Global Migration Project at Columbia Journalism School, and staff writer at The New Yorker, says the project When Deportation is a Death Sentence, a 2018-19 Magic Grant, originally grew out of curiosity about the fallout from Obama-era deportations; as the number of Central American asylum-seekers at the border grew, she’d begun “hearing a lot of talk around Capitol Hill that we might be sending people back to their deaths.” Mostly, these lost lives were invoked as abstractions — nameless, faceless, and hypothetical.
Stillman began to search for the stories of these deportees, and quickly came upon a series of hurdles: the U.S. government has little incentive to track murdered or harmed asylum-seekers, and the loved ones of the missing or dead often live in fear, afraid to speak. In 2016, she worked with a team of Columbia Journalism School students to broaden the search, contacting more than two-hundred local legal aid groups, domestic violence shelters, and attorneys nationwide, as well as migrant shelters, mortuaries, and humanitarian groups across Central America. Many of the deportees they identified were asylum-seekers sent back to nations with high violence rates, only to face further attacks of the sort they’d fled: sexual assault, torture, political persecution, and more.
Last year, after Stillman published a New Yorker feature, “No Refuge,” narrating some of these stories, she received a large number of requests for access to the underlying spreadsheet documenting cases of post-deportation harm. It became clear that the issue of post-deportation persecution stretched much further than Central America, so the team expanded the scope of the project. Each row of the spreadsheet represents a unique case of a U.S. deportee who suffered irrevocable harm — often after having his or her asylum case rejected.
Along the way, Stillman and a team of postgraduate reporting fellows, Adriana Carranca, Eileen Grench and Isabela Dias have methodically collected details of each case, represented as columns in the spreadsheet. These include the individuals’ city of residence, their originating country, specific deportation proceeding (such as ICE arrest), and whether the individual is deceased. They’ve sought to map the broad range of harm being observed, developing a system of tags to categorize the stories: deported DACA recipients; long-term U.S. residents; LGBTQ individuals; and gender-based violence survivors. They’ve also sought to gather materials to honor these individuals’ lives: learning about their personal and professional passions; interviewing loved ones; and gathering photographs, letters, and anecdotes about their identities outside of the harms they’d faced.
With the Magic Grant’s support the Global Migration Project team have logged hundreds of hours into the reporting for the 100+ cases in the spreadsheet. They have expanded the reporting beyond Mexico and Central America, to shed light on the lives of harmed U.S. deportees around the world: Cameroon, Iraq, Bulgaria, and beyond. The hope is that this living database will document the concrete effects of specific changes to U.S. immigration policy — the recent turn-backs of asylum-seekers at the southern border, for instance — and help journalists to find and report on stories regarding deportation and U.S. immigration policy. Scholars, judges, lawyers, and community groups have also expressed interest in access to the database, given the dearth of concrete information on post-deportation fates.
Their Magic Grant has also helped the team transform their data into a searchable, dynamic trove of stories for national publication. Giorgia Lupi and her research and design firm Accurat — including Gabriele Rossi, Elisa Spigai, and Giovanni Magni — which specializes in data visualization, are now working with the Global Migration Project. Lupi describes herself as a “data humanist” — a philosophy she sums up as “an approach to the data world through which…we are ready to question the impersonality of a merely technical approach to data, and to reconnect numbers to what they really stand for: our lives.” That, too, is the aspiration of this Magic Grant team: to highlight the full humanity of those who’ve been affected by U.S. immigration policy (to “figure out who these people were as people,” Stillman says), and to restore these lives to the public record through representation in data and stories.