Complementing and challenging the existing literature on the Italian asylum crisis, this article develops an actor-centred approach to open the ‘black box’ of asylum governance, showing the constitutive effects of governance on the asylum issue. It then applies this approach to the case of the Veneto region in Italy during the recent ‘refugee crisis’. By doing so, the article, first, investigates the cognitive mechanisms that shape key actors’ asylum policy decisions. Drawing concepts and ideas from framing and sensemaking theories, it shows that, while there is certainly a strategic element that shapes actors' policy preferences, there is also a meaningful cognitive component in asylum governance. Indeed, it argues that actors' strategies are shaped, more than by anti-immigration public attitudes per se (as often assumed), by how political actors make sense of these attitudes. The article then applies SNA to examine how actors' understandings are located within and depend upon network relations and investigate actors' agency, power and interactions. It ultimately shows that local asylum policy outcomes are deeply influenced by the ‘politics of policy-making’, that is by power dynamics and how powerful actors position themselves, behave and mobilize their understandings. Finally, by examining the impact of policy outputs on cognitive micro-level mechanisms, the article sheds light on the interplay between the ‘regulatory’ and the ‘public reaction’ dimensions of the Italian asylum crisis, illustrating the relationship between public attitudes on migration, frame emergence, asylum policy-making, politics and public mobilizations in the active constitution of the Italian asylum crisis.