As immigrants journey to the border, new tool helps them find water

Ricardo Dominguez, who for decades has combined art and electronic civil disobedience, wants his Transborder Immigrant Tool to save lives.

Ricardo Dominguez, who for decades has combined art and electronic civil disobedience to create projects including "virtual sit-ins," hopes his next project won't just cause a stir. Dominguez wants his Transborder Immigrant Tool to save lives.

An associate professor of new media arts at the University of California, San Diego, Dominguez and a team of artist researchers have developed an inexpensive GPS device -- in cell phone form -- that he hopes will protect immigrants from dehydration as they journey from Mexico into the United States. We spoke this week.

Tell me about the development of the Transborder Immigrant Tool.

UCSD is at the border between San Diego and Tijuana, so it's a very well known geographic social space that we live everyday. One of my long-term collaborators, new media artist Brett Stalbaum, is also part of the Visual Arts Department here. He has had an interest in doing locative media, a use of GPS technology for artistic exploration. I was really interested in one of his projects, a virtual hiker algorithm, which was an intelligence agent that would prefabricate an off-trail hike in the desert. That is, at this moment or at this time, look left and you'll see a sunset. I thought it was quite interesting to take locative media, which is very urban-based, and begin to look at it in the frontier. It seemed that an area that it might be useful to reconfigure this idea would be at the border.

How will the device help immigrants who are crossing the border?

Because of Operation Gatekeeper, the flow [of immigrants] has moved into this very dangerous desert space. Even if you're a healthy person and strong it is still quite dangerous. We know there are a lot of humanitarian groups along the border who leave water caches in the desert. The frame we developed for the tool was: Could we establish a database of where these locations were and create an interface that would be simple enough for people who are in a physically debilitated state in terms of dehydration? This would give them a chance to find one of these water caches. The tool would have a single bounce to a GPS satellite. It would then, in a simple compass modality, point them in the direction of the nearest cache of water and tell them how far it is. If you're asking for agua [water] and you have difficulty with the compass, it would vibrate if you were headed in the right direction.

The other element is poetic because we are artists. We offer poetry in the tradition of Emma Lazarus' poem in the Statue of Liberty that offers them some psychological and poetic sustenance of welcoming and hospitality. The [immigrants] become part of a mobile, virtual Statue of Liberty.

When will the tool become available?

We're hoping to start delivering the cell phones before the height of the summer passage. Right now, we're at the last stages of field testing. The next level -- probably the most important -- is that we'll start doing workshops with NGOs, churches and trusted groups south of the border. It's there that the next level of critique will be brought to the foreground. It's really those communities that will be the distributors of the tool because they're the people who actually deal with people getting ready to cross. There will be no cost to the immigrants.

How do you respond to critics who say the tool helps people illegally cross the border?

We know it's not illegal to leave water at the border. What the tool is doing is just telling an individual where that water is, and we don't feel that is illegal. [Then there is] the question of "Is it illegal for somebody to come across the border with a tool that will tell them where water is?" If the courts define that as being against the law, then as we've done in the past, one of our core levels of investigation is civil disobedience. That is that there is a higher law, a higher ethic we are responding to. That is the rights of human beings not to die unnecessarily. Civil disobedience by nature is always willing to break a law for a higher law. And certainly this would fall into that arena if the courts decided that this was against the law.

Photo 1: Ricardo Dominguez/Image by Brett Stalbaum

Photo 2: Transborder Immigrant Tool/Image by Ricardo Dominguez

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