Undocumented Communities, Surveillance, and the Snowden Revelations

As the Snowden revelations have continued to come out in drips and drabs for nearly a year now, the implications of the NSA activities around domestic spying seem to spread to nearly ever corner of society. Recently I was asked what I thought these implications were for undocumented immigrants living in the United Statese. While it has become very popular to write about the ways the Snowden revelations have impacted specific communities, I’d like to point out the ways the the Snowden leaks are nearly irrelevant to undocumented peoples’ lives.

I’ve often heard the mantra that “NSA surveillance affects everyone”, and these trendy Snowden pieces I alluded to above are all based on this argument. To some extent this is true and the strange bedfellows in First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA exemplify this. However this analysis leaves out the communities that are already under intense surveillance and have suffered from law enforcement abuse for decades.

Cat Brooks, co-chair of the Onyx Organizing Committee, very eloquently and forcefully made this point at a recent Green Sunday meeting about Oakland’s proposed Domain Awareness Center. She refuted the fact that everyone has equal ‘skin in the game’ when it comes to fighting state surveillance, noting that it is the communities that are already targeted and abused by law enforcement that will suffer the worst from increased state surveillance. One might interpret this argument to mean that vulnerable communities, like undocumented communities, should be more, not less, concerned about the Snowden revelations. However the important distinction that needs to be made is between the dragnet NSA programs that Snowden has revealed, and the local police surveillance powers that predate the NSA entirely.

While the enormous computing power, and seemingly endless funding resources of the NSA allow it to potentially drag more and more people in society under government scrutiny (and avail them to possible abuse), the people ‘at the bottom of the barrel’ have already long been living under a regime of government surveillance and law enforcement abuse for many decades.

One classic example of this is the way that people utilizing public assistance are forced give up some of their privacy rights in order to receive that assistance. The New America Foundation recently had a great panel discussion on this very topic in event titled “In Poverty, Under Surveillance:
Examining the Trade-Off Between Privacy and Public Assistance“.

In New York city minority groups’ privacy is violated on a regular basis both by it’s “stop and frisk” policy, but also by a secret FBI and NYPD program that used informants, under cover officers, and other means to spy on the city’s Muslim community

On the Tohono O’odham reservation in southern Arizona, the militarization of the border has lead Border Patrol agents to surveil residence on a 24/7 basis, and allows agents to enter private homes without a warrant.

Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa leads a protest against the separation of families caused by unnecessary deportations (2013)

Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa leads a protest against the separation of families caused by unnecessary deportations (2013)

In a similar way undocumented people are targeted in their day to day lives whether it be at school, at workin their homes, or while driving. Whether it be through illegal practices like Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s racial profiling (video example here), or through legal means like the Secure Communities program, undocumented people are targeted for surveillance, harassment, and abuse everyday. As Tucson immigration activist and community organizer Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa puts it…

The surveillance of the Latino and undocumented community has been felt long before any Snowden leaks were ever revealed. We haven’t found a focused analysis on the implications for the NSA revelations to be any different to what we already knew or have experienced firsthand.

While the NSA may now have the ability to pull a wider group of people into their net, the undocumented community has long been under intense surveillance by local law enforcement. Amalia Deloney, associate director of the Center for Media Justice, echoed this point by noting the hypocrisy of the outcry surrounding the Snowden leaks, when immigrant communities had been facing abusive surveillance for over a decade. This attitude is something I’ve heard countless other times as well in conversations with undocumented friends.

While the NSA and the large security state are intertwined, activities like the NYPD spying on Muslim Americans, the FBI mapping “ethnic-oriented” communities, the doubling of ICE’s budget from 2002-2010Border Patrol’s 7 fold budgetary increase since 1995, and the increase in deportations from 50,000 in 1995 to over 400,000 in 2012, all have an infinitely greater impact on undocumented communities than the Snowden NSA revelations.

  • Susy García

    I is not right what they are doing and complaining people are more than clear, all they want is to live well.

  • Pedro Tresguerras

    A unto my sight is not good, I think I put a little fear of people.