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The Technology Helping Undocumented Immigrants Avoid the Police

For some users, these services are a way to avoid traffic. But for undocumented immigrants, knowing where the police are and how to avoid them is just part of daily survival.

Arielle Pardes

Arielle Pardes

Image by Sarah MacReading

All across the United States, in cities stretching from Los Angeles to Lynchburg, South Carolina, phones are flashing with messages about the police. "Posible reten en el cruce de Midway Rd y Vansant Rd," read one recent message. "Possible checkpoint on East 4th and State Street." Some people see the alerts and do nothing. Others, like Marcelo Peñalosa, heed the warnings. If Peñalosa is driving near the reported police activity, he'll brake, U-turn, and reroute.

But for Peñalosa, who is undocumented, one warning came too late. By the time his phone vibrated with a notification about a possible police checkpoint near his home in Douglasville, Georgia, he was already sitting in the backseat of a cop car, arrested for driving without a license.

In the past five years, immigrant policing has expanded drastically on the local level—particularly through traffic enforcement, according to a journal article published in 2014 by researchers Angela Stuesse and Mathew Coleman. On the road, police can stop people for any reason and, in states where undocumented immigrants can't get a driver's license, easily pick out those who don't have legal status. For undocumented immigrants, everything from passing through a DUI checkpoint to getting hit by another car carries the risk of deportation.

"As a result," Stuesse and Coleman wrote in their report, "immigrants' everyday spaces are now saturated with immigration policing practices unlike at any other time in US history; deportability is now more than ever a possibility for undocumented workers and their families."

And so various forms of community information-gathering have sprung up. There's Reten de la Policia, a Spanish-language Facebook group that posts information about checkpoints in California; Waze, the navigation app, allows drivers to report the presence of police; and PaseLaVoz, the service Peñalosa and thousands of others use to track police activity on the road. Users can call in and report a traffic stop, checkpoint, or road closure, and their message gets broadcast via text to the network in that zip code.

For some users, these services are a way to avoid traffic or unnecessary stops on their commute. But for many immigrants—especially those without documentation—knowing where the police are and how to avoid them is just part of daily survival.

"It's a daily nightmare for all of us here who are trying to survive." — Marcelo Peñalosa

David Iberkleid came up with the idea for PaseLaVoz while teaching Hispanic adults computer literacy as a grad student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Not all of his clients had high-speed internet access, but they did all have cellphones, and he noticed that many relied on text messaging rather than the internet to spread important information. So in 2011, he launched a system that could send community texts to a network of local subscribers.

At first, the program had about eight different channels—it broadcast the weather forecast for the day laborers, local event listings, and a daily English word of the day. But when multiple channels became too much to manage, Iberkleid simplified it into one system where people could send in announcements and the service would repost them—things like "I sell tamales," or "I need a car mechanic." He called it PaseLaVoz, Spanish for "spread the word."

"People were renting their cars on it, selling their apartments, all kinds of stuff," Iberkleid told VICE. "At one point, somebody called in and said, 'Hey, they're doing a license checkpoint here in Durham, and I'd like to announce that.'" Iberkleid consulted with a lawyer to make sure doing so was legal, then broadcast the announcement. Almost immediately, he realized he'd hit a nerve.

"The word got out that you could [get checkpoint alerts] through this service, and it became so much more useful to people," Iberkleid said. "From that point on, we focused only on that."

Domenic R. Powell, an advocacy and policy strategist with the ACLU, told VICE the spike in local policing can be traced back to the national rollout of the Secure Communities and 287(g) programs, both of which called on local law enforcement to act as "foot soldiers" for federal-immigration enforcement. This dovetailed the steady rise in federal enforcement on the borders (indeed, since the 1990s, the number of Border Patrol agents has skyrocketed from roughly 4,000 in 1992 to more than 21,000 today).

One way local-law enforcement checks immigration status is through traffic checkpoints. Officially, these checkpoints are set up to screen for DUIs and other dangerous activity on the road. But in reality, they can end up catching far more undocumented immigrants. At checkpoints in Escondido, just north of San Diego, one drunk driver was apprehended for every ten unlicensed drivers, the majority of whom are undocumented, according to a report by KPBS San Diego.

Peñalosa subscribes to PaseLaVoz because he's undocumented and can't afford to get caught for driving without a license. Arrests like his have become more common since 2008, when Georgia raised the fines for driving without a license and introduced mandatory jail time for the offense—something that is largely believed to target the undocumented population.

"I lost $9,000," Peñalosa told VICE, referring to the fine associated with his arrest. "It's a daily nightmare for all of us here who are trying to survive."

On Vice News: Undocumented Immigrants Pay Billions in Taxes to Fund Programs They're Banned From Using

As of this year, 12 states and Washington, DC, allow people without Social Security numbers to get driver's licenses; in the rest, undocumented immigrants are denied licenses and face stiff penalties for driving without them. In 2012, Arizona passed a law allowing police to immobilize or impound any vehicle being used to transport undocumented persons; in Georgia, repeatedly driving without a license is a felony offense.

PaseLaVoz is one way to avoid these penalties. Today, Iberkleid estimates that about 1,500 new users sign up every day. And while the majority of users now subscribe to the English-language updates, there's still a core group of Spanish-language subscribers, many of whom may be undocumented.

VICE interviewed a dozen users who subscribe to PaseLaVoz, the Spanish-language service, or Relaid, the English-language version. Most of the Relaid users spoke about avoiding traffic jams. James Stacy, who lives in Laurel Hill, North Carolina, said his elderly mother lives in the next county over, a 35-minute drive away. When her house was struck by lightning, he used Relaid to make sure he could get there without any unexpected delays.

But among the Spanish-language users, nearly everyone cited fears of police encounters. One user, Marcos Antonio, said he'd lived in North Carolina for a decade with a valid driver's license and was never once stopped by cops. But when his license expired, the state had changed its policy to ban undocumented people like him from getting a new one. Since then, he says he's been stopped "four or five times" by the police. He started using PaseLaVoz to feel safer and avoid the fines for driving without the license he's not allowed to get. "The moment we get a text, we turn back from whatever way we were going," he told VICE.

PaseLaVoz employs three operators who work rotating shifts 20 hours out of the day. They're funded primarily by sponsors and paid subscribers, who can get access to multiple zip codes at once for a small fee.

"This is a matter of life and death for some people, a matter of being with their family or not. And they're doing everything they can to fight back," said Powell. "That's what PaseLaVoz is—a tool to fight back."

To sign up for PaseLaVoz, call 832-810-8100.

Additional reporting by Yezmin Villarreal. Follow Arielle Pardes on Twitter.