Category Archives: Immigration

My piece @ Slate Magazine: Body-Worn Cameras, Transparency, and the US Border Patrol

I’ve written a piece for Slate Magazine’s Future Tense section, entitled Body-Worn Cameras Alone Won’t Bring Transparency to the Border Patrol, where I argue that the US Customs and Border Protection agency’s historical lack of transparency suggests that without good policies, the cameras will become another tool for surveillance.  

Adopting body-worn cameras as part of a larger project to make the agency more transparent and accountable is potentially a step in the right direction. But without the implementation of proper policies for camera use and public disclosure of footage, it won’t do much to overcome the agency’s historical lack of transparency and its general resistance to releasing video footage to the public. Unless CBP commits to greater transparency and external oversight as part of its body-worn camera program, the cameras may become just another tool of government surveillance wielded by the state without adequate oversight.

Check out the whole piece here.

Paper accepted to Surveillance & Society!

A paper I co-authored with Ricardo Gomez and Veronica Guajardo, entitled “Sensors, Cameras, and the New ‘Normal’ in Clandestine Migration: How Undocumented Migrants Experience Surveillance at the U.S.-Mexico Border,” has just been accepted to Surveillance & Society. I’m really proud of this paper and the research we put into this project, which was funded by the University of Washington Royalty Research Fund. Get a pre-press PDF here.

The abstract is here:

This paper presents findings from an exploratory qualitative study of the experiences and perceptions of undocumented (irregular) migrants to the United States with various forms of surveillance in the borderlands between the U.S. and Mexico.  Based on fieldwork conducted primarily in a migrant shelter in Nogales, Mexico, we find that migrants generally have a fairly sophisticated understanding about U.S. Border Patrol surveillance and technology use and that they consciously engage in forms of resistance or avoidance.  Heightened levels of border surveillance may be deterring a minority of migrants from attempting immediate future crossings, but most interviewees were undeterred in their desire to enter the U.S., preferring to find ways to avoid government surveillance.  Furthermore, migrants exhibit a general lack of trust in the “promise” of technology to improve their circumstances and increase their safety during clandestine border-crossing—often due to fears that technology use makes them vulnerable to state surveillance, tracking, and arrest.

Paper accepted at The Information Society!

My paper, Information Seeking, Technology Use, and Vulnerability among Migrants at the U.S.-Mexico Border, written with Ricardo Gomez and Verónica Guajardo, has just been accepted at The Information Society (a well-respected multidisciplinary journal published by Taylor and Francis). The paper’s abstract is below:

Information Seeking, Technology Use, and Vulnerability among Migrants at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Bryce Clayton Newell, Ricardo Gomez, and Verónica E. Guajardo

Through interviews with migrants and migrant aid-workers at a shelter in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, we examine how undocumented migrants are seeking, acquiring, understanding, and using information prior to, and during, migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. Our study examines migrants’ perceptions of humanitarian service and the use of so-called “border disturbance technologies” by activists to help prevent the death of migrants in the desert, finding that migrants appreciate water-caching efforts but generally distrust technologies they feel could subject them to surveillance by border agents. Exploratory in nature and based on a small sample, our findings are not necessarily representative of the broader population, but provide rich evidence of the prevalence of word-of-mouth information seeking and use of cell phones over other information technologies, and explore the ambivalent nature of information technology use in the vulnerable setting of life at the border. In particular, we find that mobile phones help migrants meet their communication needs, but also increase their exposure to crime and abuse.

The Tinaja Trail on exhibit in California and Arizona

My film shows during opening night at the Body Practices exhibit at the Calit2 Gallery.
My film shows during opening night at the Body Practices exhibit at the Calit2 Gallery.

A 20-minute excerpt from my recent documentary film is currently on exhibit at both the Calit2 Gallery at UC San Diego (CA) and the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Check out these two cool exhibits, which both run until early January 2015.

SMoCA Exhibit: Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns, thru Jan 11, 2015.

Body Practices, thru Jan 9, 2015.  Watch the opening night discussion (which includes a portion of my film) here, or see a gallery of images from the exhibition here.


Facebook Savvy Migrants? Research Notes from the U.S.-Mexico Border

(cross posted from The Information, the UW iSchool’s blog):

Editor’s note: This post discusses some initial findings from an on-going research project by authors Bryce Newell and Ricardo Gomez about the use of Facebook by undocumented/irregular migrants from Mexico and Central America.  The research is funded by the University of Washington’s Royalty Research Fund, and is being conducted in affiliation with the UW Information School’s Information and Society Center.

Sitting in a small migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, just a few hundred yards from the Arizona border, we are surrounded by dozens of migrants sitting at picnic-style tables waiting for breakfast to be served by a small numbers of volunteers. The shelter has chain-link fencing for walls, covered in banners to keep out the sun (and the prying eyes of “coyotes” and their recruiters), a simple roof, and concrete floor.  Technology use in the shelter is minimal, although occasionally a phone will ring and a migrant will pull a cell phone from his or her pocket and step outside to talk.  We ask the migrants if they have used Facebook; just short of a quarter of the migrants in the room raise their hands.  How many have used Facebook since leaving home (either since deportation or while on their way to the border to attempt a crossing)?  About half of the hands go down.  The results, though limited, are a little surprising.  Many of these people have virtually no physical possessions and very little (if any) money. Yet, as we learn over the next few days, some of them find the time to look for an Internet Café and login to Facebook, to communicate with family or to share pictures and other information with their “friends.”

On August 5, Reuters published a story about how human smugglers (or “coyotes”) use Facebook to solicit potential customers looking for a guide into the United States from Central America.  The story, entitled “E-coyotes: The Central American people smugglers who ‘Like’ Facebook,” presents data collected from interviews with government officials who claim to watching social media for illicit smuggling activity, smugglers who use Facebook to solicit and keep in contact with clients, and migrants who have used Facebook to find information or share pictures from their border-crossing treks with family members.  The article notes that:

“There is no data on how social media is used for planning the arduous treks to the United States, but anecdotal evidence from smugglers, migrants and police suggests many use sites like Facebook to share tips, meet fellow travelers and communicate with customers and fellow coyotes.”

Initial findings from our research (which is on-going) confirm that some migrants use Facebook and other tools for various purposes related to clandestine border-crossing.  Additionally, migrant shelters provide access to Facebook, in some cases, because it is “the biggest technological tool” to help them re-connect with family members during uncertain times of transition. Much of the use of Facebook by these individuals is similar to that of many others in society. However, because we feel our findings add some interesting and important information to our societal understanding of this interesting phenomenon, we write here to contribute to the discussion.

Although most of the migrants we talked with did not use Facebook, just fewer than a quarter of those we informally surveyed said they had a Facebook account, and half of those said they had used the site recently (or at least since leaving home).  Volunteers at the shelter, some of whom had recently spent time in other shelters throughout Mexico, stated that a number of migrants use Facebook while staying in the shelters.  In some shelters that provide computer access, migrants frequently use Facebook to communicate with family and friends.  In others, computer access is not widely available, but is still used by shelter volunteers to help migrants find and communicate with family members.

As is it not uncommon for migrants to be robbed of physical possessions (by gangs, mafia, or crooked police officers), and for their abusers to use physical contact lists to phone the migrants’ relatives to coerce payments, at least one migrant expressed that he wanted to use Facebook to store contact information, because then he wouldn’t risk losing the ability to contact family or friends, and his family wouldn’t be put at risk.

During a detailed interview with one young man from Central America, we discovered that he had uploaded a series of photographs from a digital camera at an Internet Café just prior to meeting with us. We had given him the camera as part of a related project, Foto Historias, where we are exploring, through participatory photography, how immigrant day laborers, recently deported immigrants, and prospective immigrants to the US reflect their values and culture through photos and stories. The young man stated that he had taken and uploaded photos of the border fence to Facebook so that his family,

“could see the wall, because they’ve heard about the wall so here they can see it in pictures… and so that way they will know where I am.”

When asked why he wanted to learn how to use Facebook, another man from Michoacán, Mexico told us:

“I have never been in a shelter like this. And I like everything that happens here…. If one day I’m back… in the United States, I could tell friends and migrants to come look for this place for the shelter. Because when I was in Tijuana when they caught me, they mugged us on the mountains, and they took away my money. And then when I was taken to a control post in Tijuana, I didn’t have any money and I had to ask, beg around to other people, and I did not know that there was this kind of place just like a shelter. Many people can learn about this. So that I could tell other people, like other migrants and other friends, to look for these kinds of places, so that they don’t suffer like I suffered. Where to sleep, or [to find] clothes, or food.”

Although these findings are only preliminary, and we are continuing to gather data, we do see evidence that Facebook is being utilized by migrants, along with other forms of communication (e.g. phones, text-messaging).  Additionally, quite a few migrants who had not used Facebook in the past expressed interest in using it in the future, citing conversations with other migrants who were using the social media website more actively.  The availability of Facebook in migrant shelters throughout Mexico (which is mixed) may also contribute to the phenomenon.  Regardless, Facebook presents some valuable opportunities to migrants to find information and connect with family members or others (coyotes?), but could also pose some risks.  Unsecured access points could open up personal and family contact information to traffickers, much like they have historically re-dialed previous calls from public phone booths or stolen paper-based contact lists.



The Tinaja Trail screening at Arizona International Film Festival

I am pleased to announce that my documentary, The Tinaja Trail, will screen in Tucson at the Arizona International Film Festival this Sunday, April 13th at 3:00pm (@ The Screening Room, 127 East Congress).  The film documents the work of a number of Tucson area organizations (including the Samaritans, Humane Borders, and Kino Border initiative), and was filmed along the U.S.-Mexico border from Nogales, Arizona to San Diego, California. I am very excited that I will get to hold a panel discussion with members of the cast, who will also be present on Sunday after the screening, to talk about the issues raised in the film, especially those confronting the Tucson area.

The Tinaja Trail @ AZIFF
The Tinaja Trail @ AZIFF

My documentary at ZKM | Museum of Contemporary Art


I’m thrilled to announce that a segment from my upcoming documentary film will be exhibited at the ZKM | Museum of Contemporary Art in Karlsruhe, Germany, beginning this Friday, Dec. 13th.  The video, which contains excerpts from the film that are primarily focused on the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT), will play alongside the TBT as part of an exhibit entitled “global aCtIVISm” that runs until March 30, 2014.  The TBT is an artwork produced by the Electronic Disturbance Theater that imagines leading migrants to water in desolate regions of the borderlands while also reciting poetry.

More about the film is available here