Like many of the over 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, 27-year-old developer Celso Mireles spent much of his life haunted by the specter of surprise deportations of the kind that we saw across the country this week. Although he's recently documented, Mireles came to the country as a child with two undocumented parents and then spent over 25 years undocumented while seeing friends and community members deported.
Now Mireles is building a new app aiming to provide crowdsourced and verified warnings about immigration raids so undocumented individuals can be alerted and avoid them. News of the app comes in the wake of new Homeland Security immigration raids totalling more than 680 arrests. The app has been in the works since the Obama administration was busy deporting more people than any president in history, but the recent raids motivated its developer to pick it up again.
The open source project, known as redadalertas (Raid Alerts), needs to solve a range issues if it wants to do more good than harm, but it's also gaining a lot of support. New volunteers have come in from GitHub and email lists to build an active resistance to Trump's anti-immigrant actions.
"The process is to crowdsource information [on raids] and verify it," Mireles said. "If someone reports a raid, there has to be multiple verifications. Organizers from the immigrant community want to defend against trolls. Then the system will know and send a message to everyone in 10 to 20 mile radius."
It's relatively early in the development process but even just the work done so far has several technologists such as Yosem Companys, a long-time "liberation tech" advocate at Stanford University, offering support in a personal capacity.
The project gained new life under President Trump, who launched a "crackdown" shortly after being inaugurated on unauthorized immigrants. The latest raids across six states stoked vast anxiety and outright fear among immigrants, both legal and undocumented, in the United States. Immigration raids are carried out by ICE, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security.
The app, which is still three months away from a public launch, will send SMS alerts to subscribers based on indicators like a zip code they provide on signup, or geolocation. A web app could also display a feed of social media content on a specific hashtag based around the raid, providing even more visibility. Here's a screenshot of what it looked like during earlier development when the app was called "Redadas de Obama" (Obama's Raids).
Companys offered last week to find volunteers to help Mireles's project at Stanford University and elsewhere.
"Celso's effort falls right under our mission statement, and we felt the need to help: design technologies to promote the human rights of immigrant populations."
The warning app, designed to be deployed in the US, echoes a newly launched Iranian app that warns nearby individuals about raids from the country's morality police.
Immigrant organizers like United With Dream and Latino Rebels in the US have attempted systems like Mirales's before, including phone hotlines and websites hosted on WordPress. But this is the first dedicated software built expressly for this task, according to Celso.
"It should be interesting if people can reflect on why this tool is needed in the first place," Mireles said. "If there is a tool needed to protect against law enforcement, that should be a litmus test to society to say what is our law enforcement doing, what are they enforcing and should that change?"
Redadalertas hopes to build off the popular resistance to Trump. Spreading the word about the app and then training people to use it will require cooperation from groups such as United We Dream, a youth immigrant organization with over 100,000 members.
If this app is a reaction to the Trump administration's intensifying immigration crackdown, what we don't know is what the consequences will be. In Iran, a similar app was blocked within days of release and has been the subject of police scrutiny.
Trump's government won't be able to react in that way, but it's possible that American law enforcement could download the app and send false warnings, exactly the way police have reportedly done on apps like Waze. As VICE News has noted, crowdsourced warnings on ICE raids can also be wrong, creating paranoia.
There's also the obvious issue of creating a centralized database of undocumented immigrants that could be a valuable target for law enforcement or anti-immigrant hackers. Mireles says he'll be hosting the database on a cloud service like Amazon's and will be encrypting phone numbers and any other identifiable information for protection. In that case, it might take a subpoena to gain access.
Then again, sometimes it works out in the app's favor. When law enforcement began to complain about the Waze app reporting the location of cops, the popularity of the app spiked to nearly the very top of App Store.
Correction: The article has been updated to clarify that Yosem Companys is helping Raid Alerts in a personal capacity, and that the Stanford Liberation Technology Program is not involved.