Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, August 10, 2018

The intersection of policy, storytelling in real time with Sarah Stillman

The intersection of policy, storytelling in real time with Sarah Stillman
By Elizabeth Janeczko

Instead of making flashcards of political theories for my Policy Making Process midterm, I spent an hour listening to Sarah Stillman describe how she investigates stories of immigrants whose experiences can only leave deep questions about the efficacy of the policies that shape them. Certainly, her stories must have resonated with my classmates who soon were tested on how well they understood the ways that narratives shape policy discussion and implementation.

Stillman, a staff writer for the New Yorker and MacArthur Genius Award recipient, intuitively understands how to chase after stories and spotlight the effects of policy. She emphasized the impact that criminalization of immigration has on fragile, “mixed status,” families and cataloged, in heartbreaking detail, how swiftly it destroys many people’s lives.

Each Thursday evening, first-semester La Follette School students discuss the significance of the intersection of policy and storytelling in their Policy Making Process class, and Stillman’s career is a testament to the power and necessity of this work. Driven to investigate the true cost of our country’s insistence on criminalizing immigration, no matter how desperate people are, Stillman recounted the devastating impact of our country tightening its southern border on families from the Central American triangle of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Driven out of their countries by fears of violence, families and many unaccompanied children have flocked to the U.S. southern borders.

As Stillman detailed, drug cartels, with their enterprising businessmen, have taken to smuggling these desperate people along with their drugs. Stillman explained how the Prohibition Era lessons have gone unheeded by U.S. immigration policies. As the restrictions and crackdowns have increased, the lengths to which those desperate enough to be on U.S. soil will go have become more drastic and more devastating, making this a “fundamentally American problem.”

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Sarah Stillman of The New Yorker was UW–Madison’s fall 2017 Public Affairs Journalist in Residence. More than 100 faculty, students, staff, and community members attended her presentation Crimmigration: Criminal Justice and Immigration in the U.S., on October 24, 2017. Details about the Journalist in Residence program are on UW–Madison's website.

Stillman gave life to these horrors by recounting the stories of two young boys, fleeing violence and heading to New Jersey, when they were kidnapped in Texas. She told the story of a mother, who, like so many thousands before and thousands after, will never see her son again, as his kidnappers ignored the bargain they made with her.

If those stories won’t haunt you, ponder the ones she told about the impact U.S. deportation policies have on those families and children who make it to the United States. Young mothers, pregnant teenagers, most of whom are not dangerous or criminal offenders, are the victims of immigration policies as the Department of Homeland Security gladly deports them to places they have only heard of.

Immigration policy has created a culture of fear that haunts the most mundane routines. The number of doctor appointments and police reports have gone down, Stillman said, not because people in the United States are healthier or less criminal, but because the fear of exposure to an authority figure has paralyzed each choice of those who live in the shadow of immigration.

As Stillman ended her talk and responded to questions, she spoke about the importance of storytelling in defining the impact of U.S. immigration policies – at the border and in the homes of those who are its targets. As she described the outrage many citizens seem to have at the idea of young, undocumented immigrants earning an education at a tax-funded institution, I thought of the slow, dimpled smile of one of my former students – a young man who fled, unaccompanied, the violence of his hometown and sat quietly each day, struggling to keep up. I thought of his girlfriend, also my former student, who survived the harrowing journey across the Texas border, who was the valedictorian of her graduating class, and who earned the second highest Advanced Placement score on the U.S. history exam in her class that year.

They, and many others like them in my classes, did not share their stories with very many. But their stories are the ones Stillman tells and the stories that need to become part of any immigration policy discussion, or else all U.S. residents may be blind to the consequences of our laws.

One audience member commented about how U.S. policies seem to overtake and absorb any values purportedly held by citizens. It is worthwhile to ponder, not only about how values such as justice and equity are so easily unwritten into policies, but about what this says about the values we really hold.

Elizabeth Janeczko, a former high school teacher in Washington, DC, wrote this article about UW–Madison’s fall 2018 Public Affairs Journalist in Residence Sarah Stillman. Janeczko is deeply interested in the intersection of social and education policy, and hopes that her experiences as a teacher will prove helpful in continuing the fight to create polices that benefit all U.S. communities equally. She expects to receive her Master of Public Affairs (MPA) degree in May 2019.