The Immigration Crisis Arrives at the Library

How information professionals can support new Americans and populations on the move

January 27, 2020

Graphic: Torn Apart/Separados
Torn Apart/Separados is an interactive data visualization project led by librarians to map Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities and financing.

In May 2018, as images of children in cages filled TV screens and stoked national outrage over immigration policies, a Columbia University librarian led a “crisis researchathon” to quantify Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) vast reach. The result, covered widely in the media at the time, is Torn Apart/Separados, an interactive data visualization project mapping ICE’s facilities. Digital Scholarship Librarian Alex Gil Fuentes was one of four librarians on a January 26 panel at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits in Philadelphia who shared their experiences using library skills and resources to serve migrants and refugees. The session was organized and led by Julie Botnick, education and outreach librarian for the National Network of Libraries of Medicine’s (NNLM) Pacific Southwest Region at UCLA’s Biomedical Library.

“Part of the story we wanted to tell is: ICE is everywhere, the border is everywhere,” Gil Fuentes says of the Torn Apart/Separados, a second volume of which analyzes and maps ICE’s financial infrastructure. “Most people in the US believe it’s a line that separates Mexico from the US. As an immigrant I can tell you: we walk with the border, the border walks with me.”

Other panelists shared projects and resources that their institutions provide for immigrant populations and the librarians who work with them. Derek Johnson, health professionals outreach specialist with NNLM’s Greater Midwest region, introduced attendees to the professional development services the network provides librarians. Resources include two online courses on providing health information to multilingual and multicultural populations, weekly webinars, and HealthReach, a compendium of health information in many languages.

Adriana Blancarte-Hayward is outreach services manager for New York Public Library (NYPL) and vice president of the northeast chapter of Reforma: The National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking. All NYPL branches include a New Americans Corner with multilingual resources, she says, and the library’s Intranet features up-to-date immigration news to keep staff abreast of the rapidly shifting landscape.

Christian Zabriske is executive director of the nonprofit Urban Librarians Unite, which partners with social services organizations that work directly with children in the detention system, as well as Reforma, to connect those kids with books. Describing librarians as “information first-responders,” Zabriskie shared what he’s learned about the distinct needs of detained kids.

“We need a degree of systemic flexibility for these populations,” he says, since kids in the system may be moved around frequently. “Everybody can do this, every library, every committed group can do this. You have to choose to engage with the process.”


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