Expert Commentary

Need US government data? Get to know TRAC at Syracuse University

Whether you are investigating the immigration system or activities of federal criminal and civil courts, TRAC has done the FOIA work to obtain data that can bolster your reporting.

(Sajad Nori / Unsplash)

It is worthwhile for any journalist covering U.S. public policy to become familiar with the data work of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, housed at Syracuse University.

TRAC is best known for, and most often used for, its immigration data, most of which is available to the public free of charge and simpler to access than going to government agencies directly. The organization also gathers and disseminates data related to enforcement, prosecutions and other actions taken by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service.

TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, primarily grant-funded data organization established in 1989 that is affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse. Data that TRAC has gathered and made public has recently been used in stories produced by a variety of news media organizations, including Fox News, the Associated Press and various local outlets.

The guiding principle at TRAC is to increase government transparency and accountability, says TRAC researcher Austin Kocher, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who has a doctorate in geography.

Executing on that principle involves gathering information from opaque agencies at the heart of U.S. immigration policy and other topics.

“The fact that we’re known for immigration is sort of secondary to the fact that we’re interested in transparency,” says Kocher.

TRAC staff use Freedom of Information Act requests to gather data from the federal government. The aim of TRAC’s data gathering is to understand how government processes work, who is affected and how they are affected. The organization is particularly interested in areas of the U.S. government — agencies, departments, offices — that do not make data readily available to the public.

Echoing the journalistic investigative process, TRAC staff determine which agencies to ask for public records, and ways to ask for that information, in part by examining what officials say in Congressional testimony and other public settings, to assess whether there are fuller datasets informing those statements which could be worth querying.

TRAC also produces in-depth reports throughout the year. The data gathering and deep-dive reports represent an amalgam of the journalistic and analytical approaches of TRAC’s directors and founders: Susan Long, a statistician and associate professor at Syracuse University, and David Burnham, a former New York Times reporter and also an associate professor at Syracuse who has covered local, state and federal enforcement issues since 1966.

“We really have built into our ethos a profound respect and admiration for the work of journalists,” Kocher says.

Long, Kocher and other staff use statistical techniques to check and verify raw data before releasing that information via free interactive tools and written reports. Detailed information on federal civil and criminal court activities is available for a fee, though public reports are often comprehensive enough for journalists to offer context and perspective. Brief essays on the histories of the agencies that TRAC’s focus on offer useful background for journalists covering those topics.

TRAC: Where to start

There are many ways to explore TRAC data, but the sheer amount of information may be daunting for first-time users. Start with TRAC Immigration Tools for quick facts on immigration detention and immigration courts, as well as current and historical data on border patrol arrests, immigrant detention facilities, asylum filings and backlogs, and U.S. code relevant to immigration.

Among other data, users can organize immigration court proceedings going back to the 1990s by charge type, immigrant nationality and the percent of immigrants allowed to stay in the U.S. by court location. County-level maps of pending immigration court cases illustrate the distribution of immigration proceedings around the country. All data are aggregate and individual immigrants are not identifiable.

TRAC also offers a primer on how to use its immigration data tools, as well as comprehensive detail on the agencies involved in immigration processes, their roles, responsibilities and interactions. Kocher has also posted on Twitter an overview of immigration-related data available for free through TRAC.

Due to time constraints, the TRAC team can’t offer one-on-one introductory walkthroughs of how to access its data. But Kocher says he can give quick help to journalists pursuing specific stories, pointing them toward data that can provide context for audiences or other avenues of investigation. And, he says, he is willing to provide more detailed responses once a relationship with a journalist is established.

“I’ve learned the hard way that the academic timeline is months, if not years, to publication and for journalists it’s 24 hours,” Kocher says. “I have gotten over the hump and I now say, ‘If we have a working relationship, I will respond immediately to you.’”

Deeper analyses that require a day or more of work are usually limited to paying subscribers.

But there are trends in the free immigration data that can spur story ideas.

Story ideas

As an example of a story waiting to be told, Kocher points to recent increases in asylum seekers in the U.S. from Nepal. The numbers of Nepalese asylum seekers remain small compared with the number of migrants arriving at the southern border, but there may be stories to explore given the recent uptick.

Another story idea: TRAC data include the primary language that asylum seekers use. Spanish sign language is among them. What unique challenges are faced by asylum seekers who use Spanish sign language?

From a 2021 TRAC report:

“Contrary to popular misconceptions, ‘sign language’ is not a universal language. Similar to spoken languages, sign languages in use among Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities have their own linguistic histories and regional variations that may not map onto the spoken language of the region. What the courts list as Spanish Sign Language, therefore, may not necessarily represent one single language community, but many language communities.”

Design improvements across the site that will make the data easier to explore are slated to roll out over the coming year, Kocher says. And in late February, keep an eye out for TRAC reports on new data that will reveal what is happening with enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border and outcomes of Biden administration immigration policies.

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