“Conectados”. Mobile information-hub for Mexican immigrants in New York City | ALAN GRABINSKY
 

August 19, 2014

In today’s global cities, lower-class immigrants are particularly vulnerable to diverse types of technology-related marginalization. These forms of marginalization are important because access to knowledge and networks is a key factor in escaping situation of poverty in the information economy (Castells, 1996). However, due to the in-between character of this problem– one where infrastructure planning, migration policy and media policy meet –no single existing organism can successfully tackle this issue. Thus, in order to provide immigrant networking and information tools that are dynamic enough to cater to migrant’s needs, existing organisms – such as embassies and consulates – need to coordinate a wide array of constituencies and think tactically.

This project is an experiment on tactical-urbanism designed to cater to the networking needs of Mexican immigrants. It is particularly tailored to communities residing across many of New York City’s Burroughs. The project consists basically on what I will call “mobile information hubs”. The main goal of these hubs will be to provide Mexicans with an umbrella through which they can perform their identity. These hubs will also be platforms and links to wider networks, all of which could help immigrants bridge the digital/knowledge gap.

In May 9th, 2011 connection to communication technologies was recognized as a universal right by the United Nations. On a report written that day, the United Nations underscored “the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.” (United Nations, 2011).

The recognition of this right is important for immigrants because access to communication technologies is especially important for them. Communication technologies allow migrants to participate in the public sphere of their home country and establish networks in the new one.

According to information technologies and migration researcher Adela Ros “Immigrants spend time and money on mobile phones and other communication devices. They often spend a larger amount of their income and time compared with other groups” (Ros. 31). Even though access to communication devices is so important for this type of minorities the gap between Latinos who have a connection to the Internet and those that don’t is wide. According to Pew Research groups” Latinos are significantly less likely than whites to have a home Internet connection (55% vs. 75%)”(Pew, 2010). This connectivity problem becomes even more pronounced in the recently arrived population: “Native-born Latinos are more likely than foreign-born Latinos to be online (81% vs. 54%), to have a home Internet connection (71% vs. 45%), to have a home broadband connection (60% vs. 35%) and to own a cell phone (86% vs. 70%).” (PEW, 2011.) Mexican immigrants are a significant part of this Latino population, with 12 million Mexicans crossing the border between Mexico and the United States the last four decades (PEW, 2011).

But even if these immigrants were to become connected to the Internet, this does not necessarily mean that they will gain access to knowledge that is relevant. Ros argues that IT access often comes ” with a lack of structured information” (Ros, p.24) and has not ” contributed to overcoming a situation of unequal distribution of knowledge” (Ros, 24). Internet skills and structured information could help to bridge the gap.

The main problem with the existing IT services for migrants is that they are only market-driven. As such, these services can discriminate users when they perceive that they not have enough money or when it is not the target population. Because of their vulnerable conditions, migrants are poorly served by many of the top IT companies. Ros reports that “Immigrants usually report receiving unsatisfactory services and being badly served…they often find themselves paying more, getting less, and depending on corporate strategies while no public policy exists” (Ros, 31). IT providers often take advantage of immigrant needs to provide low quality, dubious solutions to their problems. Low-class immigrants with no existing social networks in the city are particularly exposed to the non-ethical market practices of IT providers for they have no standard from which to compare the price. It is also important to note, like sociologist Michelle LaGuerre states, that most of the innovations in technology are made “for commercial profit and not for social inclusiveness” (Laguerre, 53). The concept of “civic media” is useful for thinking outside this schema, for it allows us to frame a solution that is not designed for profit but to increase civic participation in public life.

During the past few years, the Government of Mexico has paid more attention to Mexican immigrants residing in the US. As stated, Mexicans have played an increasingly important role in supplying cheap labor for diverse establishments within New York City. According to the Mexican Consulate, Mexican presence in the city has increased by 70% during the last decade (Mexican Consulate’s Demographic, 2010). Immigrants in the US are also a particularly important force for Mexico, given that they constitute the second biggest source of income for the country as a whole (El Economista, 2012).

Given that Mexican immigrants are so important for Mexico’s economy, there have been emerging strategies to include them as citizen and economic agents of Mexico. Some of the most recent strategies are Internet based. Among these are those designed to allow for this sector to vote from the US (http://www.votoextranjero.mx/) or to send money back home (http://www.directoamexico.com/quees.html). The money sending service is a case of the government using old infrastructure in new ways— it relies on the national infrastructure of TELECOMM-TELÉGRAFOS, which was a government-owned telegraph system. Other related interfaces are the consular’s main website-(http://consulmex.sre.gob.mx/nuevayork/)–which provides different information in documentation services—and an emergency phone line for dealing with legal issues. (1-800-PAISANI 1-800-724-7264)

To be able to help migrant communities however, Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff thinks consulates need to recognize that economic mobility for migrants depends at least on two types of social networks. The first type, Jennifer M. Brinkerhoff states, are the networks that rely on “internal community solidarity” (Brinkerhoff, p.42). The second, and perhaps where the consulate can play a more important part, ” are the broader social structures that constrain or enable access to capital, information and resources by members of a specific community’s micro-networks”. (Brinkerhoff, 42)

In this sense, the consulate could be the link between these smaller and bigger networks. However, it has been too slow to adapt to this information need of migrants. In order to be able to represent Mexicans the consulate need to be able to tap into the different migrant communities in New York synchronically. In this case the concept of “diaspora networking” is useful, for it refers to networking that links the homeland to the Diaspora and among the Diaspora itself. According to Brinkerhoff, one of the spaces of opportunities is in performing this type of diaspora networking services: “for example, fulfilling intermediary functions, such as acting as a coordinating body between the supply and demand of potential contributions or creating online databases to fulfill matching functions or Web portals specifically to interface with their diasporas, newsletters” (Brinkerhoff, p. 43-44)

The Mexican Consulate has taken important steps to do this but without the ability to develop networks that will allow information to flow through them. This is mainly because they have not conceived of themselves as a platform for inter-communal relations. There is, for example, a “Community Affairs” in the Consular website–according to it, its goal is to establish “be the connection between Mexican communities and Mexican-American communities in the US and national institutions”(Mexico’s Consular Website, 2012) The website, however, is poorly maintained and there is little proof of an active community of users behind it–there are no events taking place and there are no open sourced discussions about what is important to immigrants right now.

Another example of the poor “diaspora networking” services of the consulate is the lack of a vibrant community in the social networks. The FB page of the Mexican Consulate is completely under-used, having only 530 users and no forums of discussion or anything. This is completely unacceptable given the fact that Mexicans are amongst the biggest users of this particular social network (35 million users according to Pixeldigital, 2012). The consulate’s TW feed is also shameful, only promoting consulate events without any form of communal interaction. These could be important places for migrants to express their concerns about Mexican identity and migration rights. There is also what seems to be a Press-Office but it’s structure and narrative are still very much that of a broadcast organization: with bursts of information designed for press-
agencies and the like. In other words, the communication structure of the consulate is too top down and hasn’t been able to become more crowd-sourced. The consulate could perform as the platform for this debate to happen- instead of this it is completely undermining its own capacity for building community.

This exclusion takes place at the most basic level, that of the built environment itself–the consulate is located in Midtown Manhattan. While this might be a centric location for the diverse communities, it is still marginalizing those immigrants that live in the outer boroughs. Even if many immigrants commute to Manhattan on a daily basis, paying for extra transportation costs is not something that they can afford.

The Mexican Consulate recognizes this spread-out character of the Mexican communities of New York. Their latest census on the population, released on 2010, shows the great increase of Mexicans communities in Boroughs like Staten Island and The Bronx:

Percentage of growth of Mexicans in New York(Consulate Website)
Burrough 2000 2010 Percentage growth
Staten Island 7,798 18,684 139.60%
Bronx 34,377 71,194 107.10%
Queens 55,481 92,835 67.33%
Brooklyn (Kings) 58,825 94,585 60.79%
Manhattan 30,391 41965 38.08%
New York Total 186,872 319, 263 70.85%

 

The consulate has also adapted to this spread-out nature of the communities, but only in its documentation services. As important as these are, they do not tackle other issues that might be most important for the immigrants such as, how to get a job. The documentation program is called ” Consulate on wheels” and brings documentation services to the neighborhoods that have high concentrations of Mexican immigrants. The “Consulate on Wheels” program started the 12 of August of 2010 and is basically an extension of a program of that started in Los Angeles. The “Consulate on Wheels” website describes the program as a strategic plan designed to “bring documentation services to Mexican nationals directly to their home, taking in mind the difficulty they face in moving to the main consulate’s site” (http://consulmex.sre.gob.mx/losangeles/index.php/csr-2012). The way it works is that they set temporary offices in well-known local buildings–like community houses or churches. They spend a week in that neighborhood and then move to the next one. In their website Mexican immigrants can find the calendar showing where they will be and when.

This solution is important but not dynamic enough to assert the presence of the consulate in these neighborhoods. The solution would be a mobile unit that will allow the consulate to serve these neighborhoods constantly and in the same day. One of its main tasks would be that of linking these communities to each other, not only to the consulate itself. This would turn the consulate services into a more dynamic, decentralized type of service instead of operating so top-down.

The particular idea for this project was based in an on-site ethnographic research performed in Roosevelt Avenue, in Jackson Heights, Queens. The main focus was to study the presence of the telephone and media companies in the streetscape of Roosevelt Ave’s Mexican section (between 81-90st). Just walking a block in Roosevelt Ave will be enough to convince anyone of just how important communication is for this sector. The streetscape is full of flags and signals for Verizon and Metro PCS plans, every single store in the area is selling phone cards. All the signals in this immigrant enclave are in Spanish and the newspapers are dealing with Mexican politics. The media companies are using Spanish-based posters to draw the crowd. And yet, for all their engagement with Mexican issues there is nowhere a presence of the Mexican consulate or someone that could give help on other civic rights.

The consular information-hub would be able to provide this presence. It is basically a New York City food truck tweaked for connectivity and rebranded with the colors and logos of the Mexican Consulate. The truck would be ran by 2-5 people and would provide the following services 1) free–timed–access to IT technology, 2) digital literacy “crash courses” 3) networking platform amongst immigrants 4) information about the larger community issues and 5) information about NYC scams (boogey websites, etc).

The consulate e-truck would provide free wi-fi, access to computers, and access to the i Internet, copy-machine services and free phone services. It would also provide consulting and basic digital literacy crash courses. The truck, like many of the food trucks in New York, will have its own twitter feed and Facebook account in order to gather a decentralized group of users. The truck will also have an SMS address and phones, all of this to engage with local crowd. The services provided by the truck would be complemented by a stand that would be set up right onthe street. This stand can also be part of the “Consulate on Wheels” service.

The truck would be a networking tool that will allow immigrant to make connections amongst themselves and inform the immigrant community about the events going on in other Burroughs. It is the link between consulate and neighborhoods, neighborhood and neighborhood, neighborhood-host country and neighborhood-home country. It is important for this service to be physically mobile because this will allow the people working on it to gain an actual sense on the problems of the community in different areas. The main goal would be empowerment, public relations and data gathering. The main idea would be for the truck to be a means for a more dignified life. By providing crash-courses on how to find jobs or how to main contacts and send remittances, these trucks would `perform like other neighborhood-focus types of empowerment agencies but backed by the infrastructure of the consulate.

Of course, there are a lot of problems that arise from this issue. One of the first that comes to mind is that of privacy and illegality. What happens if an illegal immigrant, one with no papers, approaches saying he is a Mexican? The main problem is that the consulate does not want to appear as if it is supporting illegal migrations (for fear of a backlash by the United States) but it is also seeking to promote immigrant rights. I think that in order to secure the migrant’s right to anonymity the truck should be also co-sponsored by the United Nations Refugee Agency, other NGO’s fighting for the immigrant’s rights (like “Mano a Mano”: http://www.manoamano.us/es/who-we-are.html) and representatives of the neighborhoods. It could also work with NYC department of transportation in order to have better access to sites. Also important is the fact that most of the communication lines and infrastructure in the US owned by American companies. To solve this, consulate should create a certain private-public partnership in which it can use existing Mexico-US telecommunication infrastructures (such as the ATT-Telmex consortium) to act. All data should be anonymous and private and owned by the consulate and the UN in order to lobby for immigrants rights.

This project raises more questions than it answers. I believe that this is in part because of the nature of deploying technology in the city, but also because immigration problems concern so many actors. Yet we should not underestimate the power of tactical thinking when dealing with these issues. Tactical solutions—like the mobile-information hub–remain the most cost-effective, simple ways in which we can begin to make a difference to the disempowered. Of course, there are still important issues in user-experience –like different design iterations– and in the nature and scope of the organization partnerships. Thus, a trial period must be ensured in order both to lobby for the technology and to test the extent in which it can empower immigrants’ lives.

 

Bibliography

Brinkerhoff, Jennifer. Diasporas in the New Media Age. ed. Andani Alonso and Pedro. J.

Orizabal.University of Nevada, 2010

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition November 13, 1996

Mexico es el tercer receptor de remesas.El economista. http://eleconomista.com.mx/sistema-financiero/2012/02/06/mexico-tercer-receptor-remesas. May 9, 2012

Mexican Consulate’s Demographic Study. Mexican Secretary of External Affairs, http://consulmex.sre.gob.mx/nuevayork/images/departamentos/asunpoleco/demografiamxa.pdf May 9th, 2012

Latinos and Digital Technologies. Pew Research Group. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1887/latinos-digital-technology-internet-broadband-cell-phone-use. May 9th, 2012

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. United Nations http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/17session/A.HRC.17.27_en.pdf. May 9th, 2012

LaGuerre, Michelle. Digital Diasporas. Diasporas in the New Media Age. ed. Andani Alonso and Pedro. J. Orizabal.University of Nevada, 2010

Ros, Adela. Interconnected Immigrants in the Information Society. Diasporas in the New Media Age. ed. Andani Alonso and Pedro. J. Orizabal.University of Nevada, 2010

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