Tech on the Border
Commotion, a website connecting users with means of assisting refugees, reveals how technology both helps and hurts “caravanerxs.” Donate by clicking here.
Late last year and through the start of this year, hundreds of Mexican law enforcement officers descended on a roughly equal number of refugees living in Benito Juarez, a warehouse in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego. The refugees, who had been traveling in a caravan from Honduras, had relocated to Benito Juarez after the stadium they were being held in flooded. The police were attempting to evict the refugees from their new makeshift shelter, first with orders, then with a blockade stifling access to food and water, always with the threat of batons, teargas, or worse. For their part, the refugees were awaiting asylum processing by the US Department of Homeland Security, which — due to the implementation of the illegal “Remain in Mexico” policy — left them stranded indefinitely.
Dire circumstances aside, there were scenes in Benito Juarez that one could imagine playing out in any quiet corner of the world: teenagers, for example, glued to their smartphones, crowded around electrical outlets, trying to keep a charge. It’s a common sight that belies the reality of traveling 2,000 miles to escape torture, rape, even death.
The introduction of a ubiquitous piece of technology is a subtle reminder: Refugees, they’re just like us. But technology is a tool, and it can therefore be deployed against refugees, as well as used by them.
“Almost all the ‘caravanerxs’ have smartphones,” says a member of the collective behind Commotion, a website connecting users with various means of supporting refugees, such as volunteering on the border, contributing money and materials, and even fighting Border Patrol.
More than just a distraction during downtime, smartphones serve as a lifeline for refugees. Originating in Honduras (though some travelers hail from much, much farther away), the caravan must cross at least three international borders on its way into the United States. Each border represents a telecommunications hurdle as coverage providers can be localized and international calling prohibitively expensive. So in order to stay in touch with family back home, reach help in their current whereabouts, and contact their relatives in the United States, caravanexs use WhatsApp. The encrypted messaging software relies on wireless Internet, rather than cellular service, offering users the opportunity to text message and call on their data plans or each time they luck into wifi access.
“WhatsApp, along with a few other apps, are allocated unlimited data by many cellular service providers,” says Commotion, “and make for a consistent platform across which people in the caravan can self-organize and communicate with each other and friends and family back home.”
Commotion relates the experience of a particular caravan supporter in Tijuana: The volunteer was accompanying four LGBT teens to the US border, where they would surrender themselves as asylum seekers. Because Mexican immigration policy is to deport unaccompanied minors, the group was forced to take an Uber to the port of entry. On the ride there, one of the teens was using the volunteer’s phone to call their aunt in the United States. As US border guards initially refused to let the group enter, they spent hours at the point of entry, with the teen attempting to reach his aunt the entire time. He knew that he would be held in detention, incommunicado, for weeks or even months, so he left one last message for her right before they were finally allowed through. It was only the next day that the aunt wrote back, wanting to know if her nephew was OK.
“All I could do was text back who I was, that he had crossed, and that he seemed to be in good health,” said the volunteer.
Beyond communication, smartphones also serve as a valuable source of documentation. Considering the hazards of robbery and other forms of property loss, caravanerxs often make digital backups of their personal documents to store on their devices or remote servers. Lack of wifi access sometimes makes these files a challenge to retrieve, but even the possibility is better than nothing. Commotion hopes that, in the future, volunteers will be able to improve wifi access through mobile hotspots.
“We've heard of people building mobile wifi hotspots during humanitarian crises, but we haven't made contact with someone able to do this yet,” says the collective. “Mobile generators and wifi routers could be innovations that we see used by the next caravans.”
None of this is to say that technology has only served to benefit the caravanerxs. As refugees fleeing extreme poverty and violence, they have, by definition, little access to resources — especially when compared to those who seek to persecute them, like the US government.
While the Mexican government has used drones to monitor caravan camps, technology is increasingly involved in every aspect of the United States’ militarization of the border. In particular, Commotion points to the use of ankle monitors — technology developed for domestic imprisonment — on asylum seekers who have committed no crimes, but collaboration between law enforcement and tech companies goes much deeper. The data-mining firm Palantir, for example, has infamously been working with the Department of Homeland Security to provide Immigration and Customs Enforcement with data from other government agencies to aid in arresting and deporting unaccompanied children and their families. Tech companies like Amazon, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, and Motorola have also been implicated in supporting ICE.
Although Donald Trump’s administration has unleashed a new wave of violence at the border, its militarization and the accompanying deployment of technology is a bipartisan effort. Decades of domestic and foreign policy have created the current conditions that caravanerxs must contend with. The proposal of many Democrats to build a “smart wall” of surveillance technology, rather than concrete, only creates new challenges for those already trying to find their way across dangerous terrain.
But the way that migrants respond to such challenges is evolving too.
“Via the caravan, the migrants have organized together, publicly and as a political force,” explains Commotion. “This is a departure from the hundreds of thousands of migrants in the past two decades who have taken the surreptitious and dangerous paths, riding [freight trains] and risking everything at the hands of gangs, human traffickers, and police.”
“It has opened up a new political potential for Central American migrants by creating a safe and collective means of transit without collaboration with human traffickers,” they continue. “Doing so constitutes a refusal to cross the desert alone and in secret.”
Commotion.World aggregates information to inspire and assist rapid-response support for the caravans of asylum-seekers traveling from Central America.