Conversations on Tech and Social Justice: Jorge L. Barón

Jorge L. Barón at Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Seattle office. (Photo by Gloria Angelin)

“Technology is being used in a very troubling way in a way that is primarily impacting people of color,” said Jorge L. Barón, Executive Director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP). Technology is “empowering more discriminatory conduct.”

His non-profit organization has been providing immigrants in Washington legal support for 35 years. The core work of NWIRP focuses on helping immigrants obtain their status and helping domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking survivors through direct legal services, systemic advocacy, and community education.

Barón said he’s seen more people entering the deportation system through the expanded use of enforcement technology.

Barón cited instances of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) using data from the Washington Department of Licensing — including license plate numbers, home addresses and other personal information — to not only locate people they are targeting for deportation proceedings, but also to keep track of their associates, or at least stop and question them.

Technology website The Verge reported that more than 9,200 ICE employees now can access license plate reader data. With this kind of access, law enforcement will be able to closely watch vehicles’ movement and access one’s current location.

I sat down with Barón to find out more about his work at NWIRP and the invasive use of technology in the current government administration.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gloria Angelin: How is ICE’s use of technology, under the Trump administration, affecting NWIRP work?

Jorge L. Barón: The cases we have seen are just taking much longer, because the [the administration has] put all these additional barriers. There are different rules that we now have to confront. The simple forms have gotten longer because of additional questions.

We are concerned about the way these surveillance systems are being used. We think that it is being used in a very negative and discriminatory fashion. I’m worried that if we give more ability for people to engage in this discriminatory conduct, when they don’t have clear guidance what the rules are, I think people of color are not going to be able to come to the United States. That’s the goal they want to reshape: the demographics of immigration.

Angelin: Is it legal for the government to check people using facial recognition, and checking people’s ID?

Barón: The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) are supposed to be doing border enforcement, they are not supposed to be doing interior enforcement. We have a complaint filed against what CBP is doing in the buses. They are doing traffic stops; they would pull over vehicles and it was only happening to people of color. We don’t live in a sort of totalitarian country, we are not supposed to show ID wherever we go, unless there’s a valid reason.

Angelin: Do we have the right to refuse showing ID?

Barón: Yeah, absolutely! And you don’t have to answer anybody’s questions. The only time you have to provide identification is when you’re driving and local police pull you over and want to verify you have a driver’s license.

In this case, we’re talking about buses that are not traveling anywhere near the border. Now, border patrol claims that these ID checks are voluntary. But if you have a border patrol agent who’s blocking your way out, and they question you about your status, in that situation, most people perceive that they’re not free to refuse questioning. We think it is problematic and we do think that it violates people’s rights to engage in behavior.

Angelin: How difficult is the “immigration law language” and how do you help people understand?

Barón: Can I just grab something? [Barón grabs a massive 2,485 page book with small writing in it.]

This is how difficult the immigration law language is. Our job is to navigate this book and try to explain to people who come in the door. It’s impossible for people to navigate this on their own and unfortunately, it’s in our system.

If you ever have a chance to go to an immigration court hearing, there were children facing a deportation hearing who are not entitled to an attorney. We’ve actually been fighting this case at the federal courts, arguing that there should be a right to counsel for children deportation proceedings enforcement. We have not been successful in getting that right recognized. There are injustices in our immigration system. This probably would never be acceptable in any other context. But somehow, it’s okay because we are dealing with immigrants.

Angelin: Is there anything else you want to add?

Barón: What worries me a little is that part of this administration tactic is to scare people. I don’t want people to be discouraged from pursuing things that they are qualified for, or not to go apply for a green card when they’re eligible. The obstacles are real, and I think it’s really important for people to get good advice. They just need to be cautious.


Conversations on Tech and Social Justice: This story was made as part of The Seattle Globalist’s Fall 2019 Tech and Social Justice Fellowship, in partnership with the University of Washington’s Communication Leadership master’s program.