Fall 2020 launch

The Asylum Lab was conceived in 2019 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 had 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 did an admirable job reporting on the facts on the ground, very little (if any) work was done regarding how records are being kept of the crisis that is unfolding before our eyes. 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.

Lab Team

  • Jason Ahlenius
    Doctoral Candidate, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Arts and Science
  • Benjamin Berman-Gladstone
    Doctoral Candidate, Departments of Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and History, Arts and Science
  • Bárbara Pérez Curiel
    Doctoral Candidate, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Arts and Science
  • Sibylle Fischer
    Associate Professor, Department of Spanish and History, CLACS, Arts and Science
  • Bita Mousavi
    Doctoral Candidate, Departments of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, and History, Arts and Science
  • Ellen Noonan
    Clinical Associate Professor, Department of History; Director, Archives and Public History Program, Arts and Science
  • Alexia Orengo-Green
    Masters Student, Department of History, Arts and Science
  • Laura Rojas
    Doctoral Candidate, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, Arts and Science
  • Benjamin Schmidt
    Clinical Associate Professor, Department of History, Arts and Science; Director of Digital Humanities
  • Sarah Sklaw
    Doctoral Candidate, Department of History, Arts and Science
  • Bryan Zehngut-Willits
    Doctoral Candidate, Department of History, Arts and Science


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. 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.

Over ninety million migrant records, known as A-files, are in the hands of the US immigration bureaucracy. A-files are in essence portfolios that are generated by the state for migrants, immigrants, or refugees who enter the U.S. and, in the process, come into contact with border control agencies. Searchable by only a few criteria, migrants, their families, and their advocates must undertake cumbersome individual requests in order to retrieve the records. The A-files of any individual born more than a 100 years ago are known as historical A-files; they are deposited at the National Archives and are in the public domain and have similarly minimal catalog information. Because of this, the use of A-files has essentially been limited to documenting the immigration history of specific individuals.

In the long term, we envision creating a crowdsourced digital community archive of A-files that comprises historical as well as recent files (with appropriate privacy protections for the latter), developed to serve the needs of both scholars and members of migrant communities outside of academia. We will begin by creating and testing a prototype digital archive of historical A-files, using machine learning techniques to identify and index the many document types contained within A-files. This level of indexing will make the diverse contents of the files discoverable by social, political, and geographical criteria. It will enable researchers to locate specific topics such as policing and detention, medical care, employment, or types and outcomes of legal proceedings. As transnational records, A-files will shed new light on immigration history in the U.S., the history of migrants’ home countries, and the often understudied ways in which the two interconnect.