(GUEST) More Technology Isn't The Solution To Trump's Draconian Immigration Policies

Technology is not an alternative to harsh border and immigration policy. Instead, it's the tool already enabling CBP and ICE to carry out them out.

While campaigning, President Joe Biden often presented himself as the more humane alternative to Donald Trump’s draconian immigration policies. In July, Biden once tweeted, “We need to restore dignity and humanity to our immigration system. That's what I'll do as President.” On the very first day of his presidency, Biden followed through on some campaign promises to reverse Trump’s “Muslim Ban”, halt construction of the border wall between the United States and Mexico, and even presented Congress with a sweeping bill to reform immigration. Although the full text of this bill has yet to be released, reviewing Biden’s official campaign platform on immigration provides insights into the president’s policy priorities and, most importantly, their shortcomings.

In “Plan for Securing our Values as a Nation of Immigrants”, Biden declared: “Today, our immigration system is under greater stress as a direct result of Trump’s misguided policies, even as he has failed to invest in smarter border technology.” That small sentence alone reveals the problems in Biden’s approach to immigration policy. While Biden positions himself as the antithesis to Trump with vows to “restore dignity and humanity” to immigration, his statement falsely implies that technology represents a more ethical solution than a border wall. Most concerningly, it fails to recognize that technology already plays a massive role in immigration detention and deportation.

“…technology is not an alternative to harsh border and immigration policy, it’s the tool that enables CBP and ICE to carry out these policies.”

Since the 1990s, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has relied on a whole suite of technologies to detect people attempting to cross the border: remotely-operated cameras, infrared night vision, stadium lighting, motion detectors, underground seismic sensors, laser range-finders, and thermal imaging. More recently, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) introduced technology allowing them to track people already located within the country, including facial recognition, automated license plate readers, and IMSI catchers (also known as Stingrays), which latch on to a suspect’s cell phone signal. ICE also began issuing electronic ankle monitors to people that have been released from immigration detention; these monitors have been used to identify sites for workplace raids, leading to the arrests of hundreds of people. As a general trend, surveillance technologies are used to locate unauthorized immigrants so that they can be captured, placed in detention centers and, ultimately, deported. Put simply, technology is not an alternative to harsh border and immigration policy, it’s the tool that enables CBP and ICE to carry out these policies.

Since the 1990s, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has relied on a whole suite of technologies to detect people attempting to cross the border: remotely-operated cameras, infrared night vision, stadium lighting, motion detectors, underground seismic sensors, laser range-finders, and thermal imaging. More recently, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) introduced technology allowing them to track people already located within the country, including facial recognition, automated license plate readers, and IMSI catchers (also known as Stingrays), which latch on to a suspect’s cell phone signal. ICE also began issuing electronic ankle monitors to people that have been released from immigration detention; these monitors have been used to identify sites for workplace raids, leading to the arrests of hundreds of people. As a general trend, surveillance technologies are used to locate unauthorized immigrants so that they can be captured, placed in detention centers and, ultimately, deported. Put simply, technology is not an alternative to harsh border and immigration policy, it’s the tool that enables CBP and ICE to carry out these policies.

Surveillance technology is popular among politicians because it carries the veneer of scientific objectivity; however, its weaponization against certain segments of society reveals the inherently political nature of this technology. Readers of this newsletter will be well-aware that Black, Muslim and other communities of color are more often targeted by surveillance than the general public. Unsurprisingly, all of the same racial and religious groups that are subject to domestic surveillance are also being monitored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and ICE. However, non-citizens have essentially no right to privacy, so they are even more at risk than their citizen counterparts. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security collects DNA samples and biometric data from asylum seekers and detained immigrants, including sensitive data from vulnerable minors. A recent initiative from CBP proposes to use facial recognition on every non-citizen entering the United States and to store their data for up to 75 years.

“History has shown us the human rights consequences of collecting sensitive data about vulnerable populations.”

Biometric information like faces and fingerprints can be “read” by border control agents and law enforcement officers without any verbal communication or cooperation with the individual in question. In this way, the body functions as a kind of password: a facial recognition scan can bring forth information from centralized databases, such as the number of times an individual has crossed a border, been apprehended by authorities, or traveled to a country on a terrorist watchlist. However, this information is devoid of context about the person or the motivations for their actions. The bodies of non-citizens and other persons cast as “suspicious” are therefore marked with what philosopher Irma van der Ploeg calls signs “written by the authorities, that turn the individual’s body into a witness against themselves”.

The existence of databases containing personal and biometric information about a specific population of foreign nationals may lead to greater stigmatization of immigrants, since they become statistically more likely to become the subject of a criminal investigation. If DNA or video footage is discovered at the scene of the crime, non-citizens are more likely to be identified, while other potential suspects might not, because biometric data is not collected and stored for all groups of society. This is especially troubling when we consider the well-documented failure of facial recognition algorithms to accurately identify the faces of people with darker skin and the fact that such failures have already led to the wrongful arrests of innocent Black men. History has shown us the human rights consequences of collecting sensitive data about vulnerable populations. These policies include virtually no restrictions on data use or data sharing, thereby exposing non-citizens to unwarranted scrutiny and potential data breaches.

Technological solutions are being eagerly pushed by the Biden-Harris administration and other Democrats, who frame these technologies as more humane than Trump’s border wall or detention centers. But just as we should question de-carceration initiatives that merely replace prison bars with electronic ankle monitors, we should be skeptical of assertions that surveillance technology is an ethical alternative to deportation or detention. Tearing down the physical infrastructure of jails or border walls is no substitute for dismantling the structures that imprison people. After all, a virtual cage is still a cage. 


Nina Dewi Toft Djanegara is a PhD student in the Stanford Anthropology Department and a Program Fellow in the Race + Tech Action Lab. Her research uses ethnographic and archival methods to investigate how technology is applied in political contexts. In particular, her dissertation investigates how biometric technologies – such as fingerprinting and facial recognition – are applied to border enforcement in the United States.