SAN DIEGO—Faculty at University of California, San Diego are developing a GPS-enabled cell phone that tells dehydrated migrants where to find water on their dangerous trek across the Southern California desert.
The Transborder Immigrant Tool introduces a high-tech twist to an old debate about how far activists can go to prevent migrants from dying on the border without breaking the law.
Immigration hardliners argue the activists are aiding illegal entry to the United States, a felony. Even migrants and their sympathizers question whether the device will make the treacherous journeys easier.
"I think it sends the wrong message," said Michael Rosen, a San Diego lawyer and member of the Republican Party. "I'm not an expert in criminal law, but any time that you're aiding and abetting people to break the American law, that sounds like something that's legally problematic."
The designers — three visual artists on UCSD's faculty and an English professor at the University of Michigan — are undeterred as they criticize a U.S. policy they say embraces illegal immigrants for cheap labor while letting them die crossing the border.
"What it is is a safety device," said UCSD lecturer Brett Stalbaum, 33, a self-described news junkie who likens his role to chief technology officer. "It allows people to pull a very inexpensive cell phone out of their pockets for whatever reason they might happen to be in the desert and quickly gain some orientation."
"It's about giving water to somebody who's dying in the desert of dehydration," agreed Micha Cardenas, 32, a UCSD lecturer.
The effort is being done on the government's dime — an irony not lost on the designers whose salaries are paid by the state of California.
"There are many, many areas in which every American would say I don't like the way my tax dollars are being spent. Our answer to that is an in-your-face, so what?" Stalbaum said.
Migrants walk for days in extreme heat, often eating tuna and crackers handed out at migrant shelters in Mexico. On Arizona ranches, they sip desperately from bins used by cows when their water runs out.
Hundreds have perished each year since heightened U.S. border enforcement pushed migrants out of large cities like San Diego and El Paso, Texas, in the 1990s. In response, migrant sympathizers put jugs or even barrels of water in the desert.
The designers want to load inexpensive phones with GPS software that takes signals from satellite, independent of phone networks. Pressing a menu button displays water stations, with the distance to each. A user selects one and follows an arrow on the screen.
Some worry the software could lead migrants to damaged or abandoned water stations. Others wonder if it would lull them into a false sense of security or alert the Border Patrol and anti-illegal immigration activists to their whereabouts.
John Hunter, who has planted water barrels in California's scorching Imperial Valley since the late 1990s, says vandals destroy about 40 of his 150 stations every year.
"My concern is for people who arrive and find (the water) doesn't exist," he says.
Luis Jimenez, 47, was abandoned by smugglers and rescued by the Border Patrol twice this year — once after hitting his head on a rock and again after being bit by a snake. The Salvadoran migrant, who hopes to reach family in Los Angeles, would try the GPS device but can't afford one.
"If it tells you where to find water, it's good," he said at a Tijuana, Mexico, migrant shelter.
The phone designers say they are addressing the concerns, with an eye toward having the phone ready by midsummer.
"We don't want to create a safety tool that actually puts people in more danger," Stalbaum says.