© photo by Jeff Day

Asylum H-Lab

The Asylum H-Lab focuses on information/evidence/data regarding asylum seekers and the asylum process in the United States.

The Asylum Lab was conceived as an intervention in the increasingly anomic and confusing landscape surrounding im/migration and asylum in the U.S. Extensive reporting by some U.S. media, human rights advocacy groups, and activist groups have revealed a humanitarian disaster of extraordinary proportions, much of it hidden from the public eye behind the walls of detention centers across the U.S., in encampments on the southern side of the U.S.-Mexico border, and increasingly, in towns across Central America. But while journalists and advocates have done an admirable job reporting on the facts on the ground, very little (if any) work has been done regarding how records are being kept of the crisis that is unfolding before our eyes. In fact, it became clear that traditional mechanisms of government accountability and transparency are no longer reliable, in part due to government agencies’ failure to comply, in part due to the shifting of record keeping from paper files to digital record-keeping.

An additional blind spot in public awareness concerns the issue of scale. Journalists tend to work with narratives and focus on individual stories. Of course, they report on numbers, but conventional statistics tend to work with column graphs and dots. Making the connection between a column or a dot, and the story of a human being stuck on the migration routes or caught in the asylum system, remains extremely difficult. Public history and digital humanities have an important role to play in producing ways of representing the anomic landscape of U.S. immigration and asylum in ways that are emotionally and aesthetically responsive to the nature and severity of the crisis.

The Asylum team has refashioned itself as The Migrant Records Lab and developed a new project description to reflect its findings of the last two years:

  • Over ninety million migrant records are in the hands of the US immigration bureaucracy. Migrants, their families, and their advocates have to file a Freedom of Information Act request in order to retrieve the records. Some records—including those of deportees—are methodically destroyed according to record schedules; others are saved but their content is unclear. The transition to digital records has unsettled norms about what kinds of records are saved, and where.
  • Migrant records are, like all government files, highly formulaic. They reproduce government criteria of admission and exclusion as well as questionable categories of (racial, ethnic, sexual, gender) identification. Yet, they are also exceptionally valuable. Immigration records are essential for any claims of relief. They contain—however much abbreviated—life stories, narratives of migration, and other materials that may be invaluable to families trying to piece together their transnational histories. They also open a rare window onto the operations of the administrative state. In fact, migrant records are the most detailed ground-level record of the story of migration in the US. Yet, to this date, immigration history is largely written without them.
  • The Migrant Records Lab is an interdisciplinary digital public humanities project at NYU devoted to finding ways to give migrants, their transnational families, immigrants and their advocates, and scholars across the humanities more power over information exclusively under the control of the state.
  • Depending on the age and location of files, restrictions, accessibility, and needs for privacy protection vary. While, in the long term, we envision an integrated digital community archive that comprises recent files as well as historical files (with varying restrictions as to public access), the road map below sketches two related crowd-sourced pilot projects. They would model new methods of access to large, digitized collections including full-text optical character recognition, data visualization, and searching based on document images. This would make the files discoverable by social, political, geographical criteria or other terms that would make it possible for immigrant families, historians (including of countries outside the U.S.), and advocates to tell the full range of migrant stories.
  • Community Archive pilot: we’d develop a webpage that would guide im/migrants and their families through the FOIA request process. At the same time, we would be building a community FOIA library (on the model of Muckrock); individuals and families could, if they so desired and on an entirely voluntary basis, safely store the files they receive, and thus preserve them for future generations. A central aspect of this work will involve determining how to create safeguards for the ethical and safe stewardship of these records.
  • Historical files pilot: The immigration files of any individual born more than a 100 years ago are deposited at the National Archives; files for deceased persons are available through FOIA or in person at the NARA branch in Kansas City. These files are currently not reliably searchable except by individual names; digitized versions of the files, we have discovered, have not been deposited. Creating a digital repository of these files would make this invaluable historical source accessible, for the first time, to anyone (immigration historians, im/migrant families, and migrant advocates) who seeks to understand the history of im/migration and the often-fraught encounters between individuals and the administrative state.

Lab Team

Jason Ahlenius, PhD candidate, Spanish & Portuguese; Lab research assistant
Benjamin Berman-Gladstone, PhD candidate, Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and History
Barbara Perez Curiel, PhD candidate, Spanish & Portuguese
Sibylle Fischer, Associate Professor, Spanish & Portuguese, History, CLACS
Gabriel Giorgi, Professor, Spanish & Portuguese
Bita Mousavi, PhD candidate, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
Ellen Noonan, Clinical Associate Professor, History; Director, Program in Public History and Archives
Alexia Orengo-Green, PhD candidate, History
Laura Rojas, PhD candidate, Spanish & Portuguese
Benjamin Schmidt, Clinical Associate Professor, History; Director of Digital Humanities
Sarah Sklaw, PhD candidate, History
Bryan Zehngut-Willits, PhD candidate, History