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Facebook Savvy Migrants?  Research Notes from the U.S.-Mexico Border
Recently deported migrants eat breakfast at a shelter in Nogales run by the Kino Border Initiative.

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

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.

About Bryce Newell

I’m a Ph.D. Candidate in Information Science at the University of Washington Information School, licensed attorney (California, inactive), and a documentary filmmaker. I am also a past Google Policy Fellow (2013), hosted by the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law in Ottawa, Ontario. My research investigates the legal, ethical, and political implications of surveillance and counter-surveillance in modern society – with an emphasis on issues related to information privacy, liberty, free speech, and access to information.

One comment

  1. Fantastic website. A lot of useful info here. I’m sending it to a few friends ans also sharing in delicious. And certainly, thanks for your effort!

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