Turning Data into Human Stories

Summer 2019
Nicol Svajlenka sitting in a chair

Photo by Andre Chung

Nicole Prchal Svajlenka ’08 is trying to solve the immigration system one data point at a time.

A senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress (CAP) — an independent nonpartisan policy institute in Washington, D.C. — Svajlenka spends her days scrutinizing changes and analyzing the efficacy of systems, with the goal of creating comprehensive immigration reform.

“Our immigration system is broken, and it has been for a really long time,” says Svajlenka, whose work focuses on protections for undocumented immigrants and refugees. “Some people ask why undocumented immigrants can’t ‘just get in line,’ but the truth is their options are extremely limited… The ‘line’ could be decades long for those waiting to immigrate living outside the United States. And there really isn’t a line for undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.”

Her team’s current concentration is HR6, known as the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019. If passed, the bill will place 2.5 million immigrants — who have lived in the United States since the average age of 8 — under protected status and on a pathway to citizenship.

Part of Svajlenka’s role is to quantify the contributions these long-term residents make in their communities, like paying taxes and mortgages. Her colleague at CAP’s sister organization, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, then distributes materials showing the results of Svajlenka’s research to federal, state, and local elected officials. “One of the things that’s crucial to my role is making sure numbers have context,” she says. “We pair information and stories.”

For example, in 2017, she was part of the team that figured out that 122 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients would lose protection every day in the first six months after it was ended. Her colleagues made pins reading “122” and distributed them to Congress members. “That was a straightforward and simple thing, but it had a life of its own,” Svajlenka says.

Her interest in immigration reform evolved from majoring in environmental geography at Colgate. “Geography is so much more than places on the map,” Svajlenka says. “At its most basic, geography is analyzing patterns and trends and how they relate over space or time.”

Her devotion to human geography and migration was sparked by a summer volunteering in Honduras and an internship at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees in Utica. There, she worked with a range of individuals on how to navigate hurdles like taking the bus, learning a new language, enrolling children in school, and scheduling medical appointments.

Svajlenka started to think more deeply about “how immigrants and refugees become a part of their new community,” she says. “It opened my eyes to the complexity of and range of experiences within the U.S. immigration system.”

Her experiences inspired her to pursue a master’s in geography at The George Washington University and a career path that led to CAP, where she’s worked since 2017.

“Geography, immigration, and policy are natural fits,” she says. “I’ve used geography as a lens to work on immigration since I graduated.”