Immigrant Deportations, Big Data and Digital Technology

Immigrant Deportations, Big Data and Digital Technology

President-elect Donald Trump’s proposal to deport a sub-set of undocumented “bad-guy” immigrants and to develop a master list of Muslims living in the United States has triggered a sense of impending fear for migrants, and a focused engagement by individuals and institutions concerned with racial/ethnic profiling and the preservation of civil liberties. These fears and concerns generated an important yet narrow public conversation – among immigrant and civil rights activists – concerning the incoming administration’s policy, procedures, and logistics.

These are valid concerns. A reading of U.S. history brings to the fore the devastating experiences involved in the mass deportation of 2 million Mexican workers during the throes of the depression (1929-1936), and the 1.3 million Mexicans “repatriated” by the infamous 1954 Operation Wetback initiative. In both case, these dragnets involved racial profiling and the gross violations of civil rights that resulted in the deportation of many U.S. citizens of Mexican decent. The historical record is clear and should serve to inform contemporary concerns regarding profiling, prospective mass deportations and the crafting of a Muslim registry.

Regardless, circumstances are vastly different today. Unlike the past, today we live in a hyper-digital socio-economic ecosystem of big data where curated information and market-based micro-targeting are the norm. Mobil phones, social media, web sites, and debit cards have fundamentally blurred the boundaries between privacy and surveillance. Today we are all transparent consumer “data sets” as our personal information is monitored, manipulated, and managed by invisible and seemingly neutral corporate algorithms. These algorithms and data mining procedures have largely destroyed anonymous safe-spaces and long-standing conventions regarding individual privacy.

The possible uses and misuses of digital technologies is a game changer. Unfortunately, the intrusive use of sophisticated data technologies has not been part of the national conversation regarding the “migrant problematic,” identification procedures and possible deportations. Clearly the use of innovative and disruptive technologies will shift the logistical mechanics from cumbersome and crude efforts to highly personalized immigrant databases that are efficiently managed and seamlessly accessed.

Technology and politicsA simple range of scenarios highlights how this might work in the real world. Suppose Juan, an undocumented migrant living in Jackson Heights, regularly sends remittances to his family in Cali, Colombia. When making the transaction, Juan is required to supply sensitive sending and destination information, like names and addresses, to the agency facilitating the remittance transaction. Similar personal data capture holds true when he pays for a transaction with a debit or credit card, uses his mobile phone, skypes his family in Colombia, uses social media, or makes an on-line purchase from Amazon. All these digital sources and data points can be cross referenced, correlated, and assembled into a highly nuanced migrant profile. In effect, Juan has been micro-identified, tagged, and archived. His person and identifying information – in short – are now part of a finely-tuned data base. Clearly what happened to Juan can just as easily happen to millions of other undocumented and documented immigrants.

An argument could be made that the government might encounter resistance – due to privacy concerns or legal issues – in accessing personal information from a commercial provider. This barrier, nonetheless, can be easily circumvented. Data generating functions can be contracted out to private sector data miners and/or marketing firms. These niche firms – during the recent past – developed considerable technical expertise in creating micro-targeted data files for sale as marketing tools and techno-commodities.

The cold realities associated with this “brave new world” of electronic data calls for a change in the public conversation regarding how individuals, civil rights organizations and civic institutions should reframe the cyber data issue in a substantive and pragmatic manner. To not do so, represents a failure to engage in an important conversation regarding basic human rights and the future of democratic values and practices.

Arturo Ignacio Sánchez, Ph.D. is an urban planner and a member of Community Board 3, Queens. He has taught at Barnard College, City University of New York, Columbia University, Cornell University, New York University, Pratt Institute, and various Latin American universities

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