by Durba Mitra

I have often joked that I never get American idioms quite right. Maybe it is because I am an immigrant, and I never quite knew the correct use of expressions in American English. You would think, considering how much I tried to emulate Americans in my life as a first-generation Indian kid in Fargo, North Dakota, that I would be better at idioms. But one mode of expression that my mother taught me, one that I heard again and again in our household, was “I work like a dog.” My mother is an immigrant, a single parent who somehow managed to get a PhD while raising children alone and working full time. She often worked extra jobs to make ends meet. Our family’s story was not as ideal as many immigrants who came after the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. After the family came here, we were pretty much poor. But we had many advantages. We came at a time when rural America wanted our intellectual and skilled labor.

Why did she “work like a dog”? In part to pay for those vital documents that would let us continue to live here. When our family was to be naturalized, our family like so many others was swindled by a lawyer who we hired to help us obtain citizenship. He knew he could easily to make money off of our desperate need for documents. When we finally received documents after thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of labor, my mother kept working like a dog. We pursued the right to be in this place in the middle of America, a place that loved the labor that people like my mother could give, but made sure that we knew we were not of this place. We had documents, but we were not really meant to use America’s idioms.

For this project, a group of scholars, activists, digital humanists—largely immigrants—have come together to painstakingly document the landscape of prisons, jails, detention camps that remain largely undocumented for the public, hidden from view. Centers of incarceration that we do not see, that we do not realize have taken up the entire landscape of America. Take away the map behind “Clinks” and what remains? The entire map of America, including its colonial holdings. ICE is everywhere, it is the American landscape. There appears to be almost as many ICE detention facilities across the country as there are McDonald’s. ICE, like public and private correctional facilities, must be one of the ways that the unemployment rate has gone down, certainly in rural America. Those facilities must hold the immigrants that come to North Dakota to work on farms.

From these visuals in Torn Apart/Separados, we get the fullest picture of the American landscape of immigration control. From afar, “The Trap” is a dead zone, quite literally. It looks like an arrow pointing south, wider than one would ever imagine the border between the US and Mexico. From “The Eye,” we learn that ICE facilities, when viewed from above, incarcerate people on every sort of terrain, hills and valleys and deserts. ICE is everywhere, on all kinds of land, and these bird’s eye views show just how diverse and agile the ICE infrastructure is. Sometimes not even on land, like the visual data I see of the now emptied ICE facility on San Juan, Puerto Rico. So where is the border exactly? I would say, based on these Torn Apart/Separados visualizations, America is only borderland with no interior. There is no in-land or safe ground for immigrants. From California, to the New York Island. In California, I see the aerial view of a huge facility surrounded by sandy dirt. Just outside the New York Island, the ICE facility is Riker’s jail itself, where detainers are placed on thousands of people awaiting trial who have been denied their right to due process. That facility is a penal colony.

In the visual of the Office of Refugee Resettlement Redactions (“ORR”), we see a system that claims its legitimacy through the language of the document but is required to give no documentation itself. The map of the redacted and unreported ICE centers is like a game of peekaboo. Black circles that lead you to a location and then disappear when you try to click on them. There is nothing more to know, we are told. These people do not have documents, we are told. We do not have a right to know these detention centers or these people, we are told. People are being incarcerated indefinitely with no rights, for our benefit, we are told.

In pursuit of our documents, my own family had to answer countless questions. Where are we from? Why do we wish to become Americans? We were also left with our own questions that could not be answered. How much should one pay for a lawyer? How long will my greencard be “in process”? What will we have to leave behind? How long will we be detained at the airport? Why did they steal our hard-earned money? How could they do this to us?

What I see in these sophisticated maps and data visualizations are many graphic, detailed illustrations that show the vast reach of this network of detention centers, prisons, and private for-profit jails and detention facilities. I see the impressive efforts of scholars and activists who have built Torn Apart/Separados. They have made visualization after visualization that expose the extensive infrastructure of immigration and border control that now defines the terrain of American social and political life. The visualizations document, from facility to facility, the exponential increase in ICE detentions between 2014 and 2018. Torn Apart/Separados demonstrates that this situation, this immigration “crisis,” is not new, nor is it accidental.

From Torn Apart/Separados, we have more information related to the infrastructure of ICE available and visualized for us than any other publicly available resource on the immigration crisis today. Yet viewing these maps, I have few answers and more questions. These questions perhaps cannot be answered by visualizations alone. Why are we imprisoning people who seek asylum? Where have they moved migrant children? Why are people so willingly ignorant of ICE policies? And what are immigrants working like dogs for in this landscape of prisons?

Durba Mitra is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Carol K. Pforzheimer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University.