UCSD professor’s immigrant device center of debate


A University of California research team is working on cell phone application that would guide illegal immigrants to emergency water caches, and the professor creating the device calls it valid civil disobedience, it was reported Saturday.

Immigration activists are infuriated by the work at UC San Diego, and called on the Professor Ricardo Dominguez to be arrested for aiding and abetting illegal crossings of the U.S. border, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported.

The computer device would use G.P.S. satellites to fix the location of a border crosser, and then use the Internet to download a list of locations where water is being left in desolate stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border by activists.

“The border itself is an illegal entity,” said Dominguez, who views the crossing the border to seek a better life as a basic human right. “Civil disobedience is about breaking the law for a higher law.”

Dominguez calls his mobile computer phones to skirt U.S. laws “in some ways a mobile Statue of Liberty.”

The $9,000 to buy the phones and deliver them to sympathetic nonprofits and churches will come from funds at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology on the UC San Diego campus, where Dominguez heads a team developing the devices, the newspaper reported.

Dominguez, an associate professor of visual arts at U.C. San Diego, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise that a voice-recognition system will allow migrants to say, for example, “I want water,” in Spanish or one of several indigenous languages, and then be directed to water sources. It also will tell them where highways and other landmarks are, giving them the most direct route to get there.

Dominguez’s system, which will be installed in hundreds of cell phones that Dominguez and his colleagues are buying as little as $6 on eBay, the Press-Enterprise reported, will be programmed to direct migrants to water jugs that nonprofit groups place in the desert for them. They also will point them toward Border Patrol stations in case they need life-saving assistance.

Dominguez told the Press-Enterprise his devices cannot direct migrants toward any locations, like standard positioning systems already sold at electronic stores. A true GPS points the user toward any specific longitude and latitude.

Dominguez told the Press-Enterprise he got the idea for the device while talking with a colleague at the institute who was developing a device for off-trail hiking.

Agent Louie Avila, a Border Patrol spokesperson, told the Press-Enterprise some migrants already use portable GPS devices, along with scanners that can pick up Border Patrol agents’ conversations.

“This is nothing new,” Avila told the Press-Enterprise. He predicted the agency would obtain one of the devices to find out what paths might be taken.

Still, Dominguez told the Press-Enterprise that field testing will take place over the next few months. He also plans to share the technology with groups helping migrant cross the waters separating North Africa and Spain. Then Dominguez and his colleagues will meet with nonprofits and churches on both sides of the border to receive feedback. Those groups will be later trained on how to update water location and other information to the devices.

“Anything that can help bring down the number of deaths at the border is a positive thing. So many people die there because of lack of water, heat, or they get lost,” Jennaya Dunlap, of Immigration Raids Rapid Response Network, which monitors immigration enforcement actions in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, told the Press-Enterprise.

An October report by the American Civil Liberties Union that analyzed U.S. and Mexican government data said between 3,861 and 5,607 migrants have died in the desert since 1994, when the federal government ramped up enforcement in more populated areas and pushed many migrants to cross the border in remote, often-treacherous regions.