An App for Immigrants: The Controversial Issue’s New Tech Frontier

Immigrant-rights activists are developing an “SOS” app for immigrants swept up by Arizona police. Terry Greene Sterling on the controversial issue’s new technological frontier.

03.03.12 9:08 PM ET

As a longtime Phoenix immigrant-rights activist, Lydia Guzman says she has fielded phone calls from thousands of immigrants and American Hispanics who were either searching for missing relatives that might have been ensnared in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration raids, or who were being arrested themselves. In the latter case, Guzman says, she’d often hear the “strong voice” of a law-enforcement official in the background telling the caller to “roll down the window and get off the phone.” Sometimes, the phone clicked off before Guzman got important details—like the contact info for relatives and legal representatives.

During the heyday of Arpaio’s unchecked raids on Hispanic neighborhoods and businesses in the Phoenix area, Guzman, the executive director of the human-rights group Respect/Respeto, also oversaw a phone-texting system that alerted immigrants, activists, and journalists to the exact location of the raids.

But technology has advanced, and on Wednesday, Guzman and fellow activist Todd Landfried unveiled a crowdfunding plan for an SOS phone app for immigrants. It’s called e-APP: Emergency Notification for Everyone. Although crime victims and parents of teenagers might also find the app handy, “Quite frankly,” Landfried says, “the target market is the immigrant market and anyone-who-could-look-like-an-immigrant market.”

Landfried, the executive director of Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, a Phoenix-based coalition of businesses seeking “sensible immigration reform,” says the app hasn’t been designed yet. First, he and Guzman must raise about $225,000 to hire engineers, test out the app, and market it. They hope to sell it on iTunes for about $2.

Hispanic immigrants tend to be avid smartphone consumers, and Landfried and Guzman believe they'll happily buy the app and program the settings to instantly alert family members, social media, consulates, and lawyers about their stops, detentions, or arrests. What’s more, Landfried says, the app would store digital copies of driver licenses, passports, work papers, and other immigration documents. It would offer routine alerts reminding app users to check brake lights, headlights, and wipers (malfunctioning lights and wipers sometimes trigger immigration stops.) It would contain a GPS device that marks the arrest site. And it would have a constitutional-rights crib sheet.

“Whether you like it that undocumented immigrants are here or not, they do have rights in the United States,” says Landfried. And even though illegal immigration has decreased drastically in the last few years, at least 10 million potential app buyers still reside in the United States.

As the immigration battle rages in the Republican primary (Romney and Santorum are both for SB 1070, Arizona's controversial immigration law that makes it a state crime for an unauthorized immigrant to be in Arizona and requires all cops to enforce immigration laws), Arizona immigration hawks are riling their Tea Party base with all sorts of proposed crackdowns. Democratic senators recently stormed out of an Arizona senate committee hearing in which Glenn Spencer, a highly controversial border watcher, was invited to testify. Spencer was the guest of state Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Republican immigration hard-liner from rural Arizona who wants a militia of untrained armed volunteers to patrol the Arizona border (in search of immigrants, narcos, and Hizbullah) at a cost of about $1.4 million per year.

This week, the Arizona Senate passed Allen’s militia bill. If the Arizona House passes the measure, and it’s signed by Gov. Jan Brewer, there will likely be more phone-app clients for Landfried and Guzman.

The two activist-entrepreneurs haven’t gotten much press in Arizona. They’ve been upstaged by Allen, Spencer, and their phone-app muse, Sheriff Arpaio. On Thursday, Arpaio trumpeted a “probable cause” that President Barack Obama’s birth certificate was “forged” at a theatrical press conference.

After nearly 20 years as the sheriff of Arizona’s most populous county, Arpaio, 79, faces a tough reelection bid. His popularity in Arizona is dwindling, and he’s battling charges of rampant racial profiling by the U.S. Department of Justice. A separate ongoing DOJ criminal probe—to see if the "Toughest Sheriff in America" wrongly investigated, indicted, and arrested his political foes—poses another political nightmare for the old sheriff.

Critics, like Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, charge that Arpaio attempted to revive the stale and oft-debunked birther conspiracy theory to distract his fan base from his mounting legal problems. But Arpaio, who faces possible indictment, has already left his mark. He has become the icon of immigration-
hawk politicos who have passed bills similar to SB 1070. The Arizona law is scheduled for an April 25 hearing in the U.S. Supreme Court, and if it is upheld, it will likely spur a slew of copy-cat laws—and potential phone-app customers.

At this writing, not a single person has donated to the phone-app crowdfunding site. But Guzman and Landfried have 28 days to raise their money, and being immigration activists, they’ve steeled themselves for a long battle. They know there’s a market for their app, if they can figure out how to fund it. “People,” explains Guzman, “are being stopped every day.”