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EAST BAY TIMES: Mobile Apps for Undocumented Immigrants Mark New Era in Technology

EAST BAY TIMES: Mobile Apps for Undocumented Immigrants Mark New Era in Technology

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This article originally appeared in the East Bay Times.

By: Tatiana Sanchez

With the press of a digital “panic” button, immigrants detained by ICE may soon be able to send customized, encrypted messages to friends and family from their mobile phones in a last-minute attempt to share final parting words or critical information.

Notifica, which has yet to launch, is just one mobile app being developed for immigrants at a time when both legal and undocumented immigrants are increasingly worried about their status in the U.S. Others are working on tools that provide real-time alerts about ICE raids and information on legal resources.

While apps aimed at helping immigrant communities have been around for years, developing digital safety nets and resources for this growing market has taken on new urgency in the wake of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.

“A lot of people in the tech community have been upset with what happened after the election and want to do something about it,” said Natalia Margolis, a software engineer at the digital agency Huge who partnered with Notifica founder Adrian Reyna to design the app. “Trump winning the election was certainly a wake up call to a lot of people.”

Potential users of these apps have grown exponentially in recent years — an estimated 95 percent of Americans own a cellphone of some kind and the share of those who own smartphones is now 77 percent, up from 35 percent in 2011, when Pew Research Center conducted its first survey of smartphone ownership.

An estimated 98 percent of U.S. Latinos own cellphones, according to Pew. Within that group, about 75 percent own smartphones.

So far, there are about 8,000 people on a waiting list to download Notifica, according to Reyna, director of membership and technology strategies for the national immigrant rights organization, United We Dream.

As an undocumented resident himself, Reyna understands what’s needed: “In a moment when you don’t know what to do because everything is crashing down on you and you’re trying to get a hold of many people at the same time … we want to narrow that down to one thing.”

The app gained national attention after its debut at the SXSW conference last month.

Notifica, or “notify,” works with the press of a button by sending out a message blast to up to 15 of the person’s trusted contacts in a matter of seconds. The messages are pre-loaded and protected by a PIN number, which users share with loved ones. All communication is deleted from the app once the messages are sent out, according to Reyna. If they don’t have immediate access to their cellphones, users can also call a hotline to have the messages sent out at a later time.

Gabriel Belmonte, of San Jose, described the app as “a good resource to send out any status reports.” The 35-year-old, who has temporary deportation relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, said younger people would be much more likely to use the app.

“For any apps, it’s really the younger people that take precedence in using it,” he said. “There’s a disconnection between the older generation” and the younger generation.”

Technology has made a natural progression into the realm of immigration, but “the Trump administration has accelerated this, especially in Silicon Valley,” said Eduardo Gaitan, co-founder of the Arrived app, which provides a one-stop shop of resources for immigrants, from housing and education to employment and deportation. The app launched in 2016.

“Most companies are feeling the effects of the new administration directly. I think it’s at the top of everyone’s mind,” said Gaitan, a Google employee.

The app’s founders are considering adding an emergency feature in which users can send custom messages in a variety of languages, much like Notifica.

“Mobile technology is moving into more and more spheres, and immigration makes a lot of sense,” said co-founder William McLaughlin. “It makes sense to have something that addresses one of the biggest challenges one can face.”

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said, “Technology is going to do what it’s going to do.”

“It can inform people about what their options are, but in the end, if ICE and the administration are intent on enforcing the law, then it’s going to happen,” he added.

Software developer Celso Mireles is building a tool that delivers real-time alerts about nearby ICE raids or checkpoints. RedadAlertas, or “Raid Alerts,” will start off as a web app accessible through a website and text message-based alerts, according to Mireles, who plans to eventually build a mobile app.

“These alerts will inform vulnerable immigrants of risks they may face in their neighborhood or workplace,” Mireles wrote on a website for the app. “They will also enable legal aid groups, community organizations and activists to respond rapidly to protect immigrant communities.”

Apps for undocumented immigrants
Notifica: With the press of a button, immigrants who have been detained by ICE can send customized, encrypted messages to friends and family from their mobile phone.

Arrived: Created by a team largely composed of Google employees, the app aims to empower immigrants with knowledge on a variety of topics, from housing and education to jobs and deportation.

RedadAlertas: Delivers real-time, verified alerts about nearby ICE raids or checkpoints.

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