SALEM — "I need information on my daughter."
The message was written in Spanish, and Roopika Risam, an assistant professor at Salem State University, found it on Google, on an informational page for a shelter where immigrant children are being housed in the United States.
That message speaks to the multimedia project, Torn Apart, that she and seven partners at Columbia University and the University of Houston have launched — a website showing shelters and immigration detention centers around the country.
"It was just this moment of imagining this parent who doesn't know where their child is, writing on a Google page to the question box. Who's reading these questions?" Risam said. "We're trying to at least show people that those were out there, because we felt those show this very human problem."
For Risam and her colleagues, it's an issue that cuts close to home.
"Every one of us who worked on this project ... we're all immigrants," she said. Risam was born in Britain to Indian parents; they emigrated to the United States when she was a child.
"We were always aware that this infrastructure is all around us and plays a really vital role in our ability to move freely across borders," she said. "Those of us who are immigrants are very conscious about what's going on with immigrant detention."
But there's a sense, Risam said, that other people aren't so aware .
The page's main focus is a map of the continental United States covered with peach- and lavender-colored dots showing the location of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities, as well as private juvenile detention facilities.
Facilities holding children separated from their parents aren't sited only along the southern border, according to the website. They're in north Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and as close as Connecticut.
The inspiration for the project came from earlier news reports that federal authorities had lost track of several thousand immigrant children. These were not the children separated from their families at the border, Risam said. "The 'lost children' were the ones arriving at the border unaccompanied."
When Risam and her colleagues began to investigate, they realized, "it may not have been a bad thing that these children weren't under the surveillance of the United States government," she said. "We left it alone and decided there was nothing to be done using our skill sets."
Then, Americans began to learn about families separated at the border. Understandably, there are two sides to the issue. While many have denounced the separations as cruel and inhumane, others feel it is necessary to discourage illegal immigration.
The map doesn't make a statement either way, but Risam said the website isn't shy about depicting juvenile detention in a negative light. And she's open about her personal opinions.
"Speaking purely for myself here, ICE hasn't always existed," Risam said. "I lived in a world before ICE, and I'd like to live in a world where ICE doesn't exist."
Phase 2: the money
With the map in place, the group is now moving into the second, and more difficult, phase of their project: capturing the revenue systems that put detention centers in business.
"I verified the locations of a lot of places and names of places through job ads, because there's a hiring boom when you suddenly have more immigrant children to detain," Risam said. "Southwest Key is a Latino-owned nonprofit, a nonprofit in which the CEO — as of the 990 tax documents I had — was making in base salary alone over half a million dollars a year." Southwest Key operates shelters for immigrant youths.
"Over the last four years ... they had a billion dollars in government contracts from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to deal with minors," Risam said. "I can't even think of numbers that large."
So now, Torn Apart will start "mining 20,000 ICE contracts from the last five years that we have data set of," Risam said, "looking at who's making the money, how much money is being made, and ... correlating with stock evaluations."
'Portrait in political terms'
Not everyone is supportive of Torn Apart's work.
Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies for the right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies, pointed out the information is all public, but says there's little benefit to identifying where facilities are located.
"I think it's a subtle way of encouraging people to go to these places and have protests or call attention to them, and that strikes me as pointless," Vaughn said. "We've seen these other accounts of elected officials demanding access to them and showing up unannounced when they know full well there are policies in place that would prohibit that — with good reason.
"They're more interested in portraying this situation in political terms, as if somehow ICE is deliberately setting out to rip children from their families," she said, "when in fact they're responding to a very difficult decision that the families put themselves in when they make the decision to cross the border illegally."
ICE's Office of Public Affairs said it was not able to respond to questions before deadline.
Jeff Eller, a spokesman for Southwest Key, directed questions to the Administration for Children and Families, as "we do not run ICE detention centers." Asked to clarify the organization's role, Eller said Southwest Key cares for and reunifies "unaccompanied minors under contract to ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement)."
Risam, meanwhile, said the team struggled with the extent to which they identify facilities. Ultimately, only the towns and cities they're in are listed — specific addresses aren't provided on the site, she said, adding that these are provided only to those they know won't misuse the information.