By Melissa Villa-Nicholas, author of Data Borders: How Silicon Valley Is Building an Industry around Immigrants

Around 2018, I started to read reports about increasing information technology surveillance at the U.S.-Mexico border and around the U.S. to assist in immigration detention and deportation. When I looked deeper into the topic, I found that these surveillance technologies’ design, marketing, and application were right in my backyard in more ways than one.

Many companies proposing immigration surveillance technologies build and test them along the U.S.-Mexico border. The videos of the applications and testing of such hardware as drones looked eerily like the Southern California geography I grew up around. I wondered how these technologies were tested in my hometown community.

Around this time, librarians, lawyers, and journalists were discovering that data companies such as LexisNexis, Thomson Reuters, and Elsevier (RELX Group) hold contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to provide data and data management organization for the purpose of immigrant surveillance. To my horror, it felt like everywhere I turned and every technology I used in my everyday life had some connection to ICE.

As a Mexican-American Chicana from California, I wrote this book to connect my intimate experience of growing up in borderlands with the growing realization that our data and information technologies are also a surveilled borderland that may aid ICE, whether we choose to collaborate with surveillance or not. This book was a personal project to advocate for immigrant data rights and to extract and name the data borders in which we are intimately entwined. 

 The following passage is excerpted from the introduction of Data Borders.

A New Virtual Border Threshold

In March 2018, US Congress approved $400 million of the 1.3-billiondollar budget for the 1,954 miles of virtual border wall, also known as a “smart” wall (Davis, 2019). It was estimated by the Office of Biometric Identity Management that DHS will be conducting 180 million biometric transactions a year among 260 million unique identities by fiscal year 2022, with that number rising every year that passes (Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology, 2021). The virtual border wall was approved without the fiery debate about the physical border wall. But the rhetoric included promises that went beyond the physical border wall: Not only would immigrants be kept out of the United States, but they could now be known, documented through digital technology’s biological mapping. The promise of the virtual border wall goes beyond the brick-and-mortar wall: It promises to solve the Latinx immigrant threat (Chavez, 2008)—a threat that reaches beyond the idea of citizenship in the United States into a source of anxiety concerning nonparticipation in producing data that is crucial for digital capitalism.

With the virtual border wall, technology accomplishes what ICE, the border patrol, white nationalists, English-only policies, Proposition 187, and voters in the borderlands could not accomplish over centuries of attempts to reverse the influx of the Latinx population in the US borderlands; a promise of technological futurity that arose with more gusto in the 2010s, when border technology proposed a United States with a controllable immigrant influx at the border.

We are increasingly seeing Latinx immigrants in borderlands referred to as data and engaged as the object of mobilizing information technology and defining citizenship inclusion. Recent investment in the collection of biodata on the border and around the “belonging” of citizenship is a highly profitable grab around different groups of immigrants, Latinx undocumented people, permanent residents, and Latinx citizens (Cagle, 2017). The surveillance of Latinx immigrants and development of technology around Latinx bodies is not new (Chaar-López, 2019); but the scale and networked circulation of that data has changed. As data gathering increases, US citizens and Latinx immigrants become more intertwined in the borderland milieu that historian Oscar Martínez originally theorized, into what is now a state of data body milieu.

This book is about the emerging state of borderland surveillance that brings all people, citizen and immigrant, into an intimate place of surveillance where our data lives together and defines us in a digital borderlands. This surveillance places the Latinx immigrant body at the center of technological innovation and development and an emerging industry at the crossroads of Silicon Valley and ICE. Companies such as Quanergy Electric, Anduril, BI2, Palantir, Amazon, LexisNexis, and DNA testing companies all have a stake in gathering data of undocumented people at ports of entry, borderlands, detention centers, and immigrant-populated cities—and subsequently US citizens as well. While surveillance and contentious relations along the US-Mexico border are not new, what is new is both the scale at which data is gathered and the move to biological data—from retina scanning to DNA testing.

This is the evolving state of data body milieu. Latinx immigrants becomes valued as a data body, one that is used for purposes of technological design and valuable as a source of data in and of itself. Silicon Valley is physically reshaping around the US-Mexico borderlands, and US residents engage in a constant state of borderland surveillance, intimately entangled with undocumented data surveillance. Information technology on the border and in the ubiquitous data borderland is approached as an avenue to manage the excess of Latinx immigration into the United States. This emerging industry posits that the “next new” technology can contain the US-Mexico border’s rugged terrain, quantify immigrants under control, and manage the nonassimilated excess of Latinidad.

Silicon Valley’s move to design technology around Latinx immigrants is building on a long history of surveillance projects networked into and justified around communities of color as a perceived threat to white and citizen safety. Data body milieu is the name I give this recent trend, but it is always interconnected and built onto the ways in which surveillance and technologies have been encoded with bias, racism, sexism, classism, and ableism to benefit normative and acceptable states of citizenship.