Sara Stillman, a winner of a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, is visiting UW-Madison this month.


Many undocumented immigrants are afraid, and Sarah Stillman believes that fear has real-world effects on public safety.

“Honestly, I’d always thought about fear primarily as a psychological phenomenon. We all know it’s a torturous state to live in anxiety about your well-being,” she said. “I had not really, to be totally frank, thought about the actual tangible ways in which fear … translates to profound policy ramifications on the ground.”

She said that fear is only increased by legislation that strengthens partnerships between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local law enforcement, and pointed to the proposed bill in Wisconsin that would effectively ban sanctuary cities as an example.

Stillman is a staff writer at the New Yorker and 2016 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. She gave a talk at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building on Tuesday in her role as the La Follette School’s public affairs writer in residence.

Stillman has long covered criminal justice and immigration, which have felt to her “for the most part like pretty separate beats,” she said. But recently, and especially under President Donald Trump, they’re becoming increasingly intertwined, she said.

That trend has led to a lot of fear for undocumented people in the U.S. Stillman leads the Global Migration Project at Columbia University, and her students have been conducting a massive survey to see the effects of this fear on public safety.

They’ve talked to law enforcement officials who are seeing less reporting of sexual assault and domestic violence, Stillman said. They’ve heard about kids not showing up for school because parents are afraid to drive them, and their parents don’t attend free cancer screenings for the same reason.

That fear can even be so strong that parents hesitate to call the police when their children are kidnapped.

She told the audience a story she had previously reported on, focusing on a Guatemalan family with two boys. The parents went to the U.S. for a few years to make money for the family, leaving the boys with their grandparents and intending to return. But as the boys witnessed the increasing violence in their country, including seeing a group of children shot while playing soccer, their parents decided to have their sons join them in the U.S. They paid a network of smugglers to bring their sons stateside, only to have them kidnapped once they made it to Texas.

A woman told the boys to get in her car. The boys thought she was another smuggler who would deliver them to their parents. She wasn’t. She was just a “random rogue opportunist,” Stillman said, and part of a growing group of people who prey on the undocumented.

The family was hesitant to call law enforcement, but a pastor they knew convinced them to call and with the help of a trusted police officer, the family is now back together.

Stillman argued that increasing border militarization only fuels activity like kidnapping. It’s similar to prohibition, she said, in that militarization only makes the illegal activity more profitable. When the border from Mexico to the United States became much harder to cross, drug cartels realized there was money to be made, she said, and got in the business of human smuggling

“The more that you try to crack down on this thing, the more lucrative you’ve made it,” Stillman said.

The Guatemalan family is far from her only example. Stillman described a reporting trip she took in 2012, following a group of Central American mothers traveling through Mexico to search for their missing children and husbands, who had disappeared along the route from southern Mexico to the United States.

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“I thought it was going to be a symbolic act,” Stillman said. “It turned out to be a very, very literal search.”

Most of the children and husbands made the journey to flee violence in their home countries, but were kidnapped along the way, for ransom or sexual trafficking.

The mothers went from town to town throughout Mexico, with pictures of their missing relatives hung around their necks, asking “Have you seen my child?” They visited morgues, hospitals and prisons, but Stillman said “it was not a terribly fruitful search.”

Stillman also said that despite claims that only dangerous criminals are being deported, her students at Columbia have been tracking deportations across the country and have found that’s not the case. Using statements from ICE and immigration rights activist groups, they've discovered that quite a few deportations are for petty offenses, she said.

Earlier this year, Stillman wrote a piece for the New Yorker titled “The mothers being deported by Trump.” It told the story of Maribel Trujillo Diaz, a mother of four living in Ohio. She had previously filed for asylum, as her hometown in Mexico was endangered by drug cartels. She was denied and later deported, although she had no criminal record. 

“It is not fair what you are doing to my mom. Why does she have to go to mexico she is not a criminal or a bad person,” her daughter wrote in a letter to Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown.

Stories like this showed Stillman that felons are not the only people facing deportation, she said.