Filming police with cellphones or body cameras became so common after high-profile shootings of black men in Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and Chicago that there’s a word for it: “copwatching.” But the practice never spread to the U.S.-Mexico border — until now.
One evening last month, a dozen immigrants pulled folding chairs into a circle behind one of their trailers for training on the latest tools of resistance in the border communities known as colonias.
Cristela Rocha, an organizer with the community group La Union del Pueblo Entero, or LUPE, told them about MigraCam, one of several cellphone apps designed specifically to film encounters with border authorities. It takes its name from the Spanish slang for U.S. immigration authorities.
Rocha recounted how a girl recently filmed her mother being detained and, in her view, mistreated by Border Patrol agents who had seized her passport.
“We have rights. If they’re violated, we need to know how to capture it,” she said in Spanish as she demonstrated MigraCam.
Rocha offered some practical advice: Note where you’re filming, the address, date, time and any identifying information for the law enforcement officer and vehicles. Don’t let agents force you to stop recording, she said. But if they ask you to step back, comply.
“The first instinct is to intervene, but the best thing to do is record,” Rocha said.
MigraCam was started six weeks ago by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Quadrant 2 Inc. to help people send video evidence of law enforcement actions to relatives by email and text. The free app, available in English and Spanish, has been downloaded 5,800 times and features location sharing, customizable prewritten messages, notifications and “know your rights” video presentations. So far, 190 people have been trained to use the app in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.
Other apps, including Cell 411 and Notifica, offer similar services.
“We advise people to record” interactions with U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, said Cristina Jimenez, founder of the immigrant youth group United We Dream, which created Notifica.
“One of the only ways to save people from deportation now is organizing and the community defense work,” said Jimenez, noting that the app is now used by 12,346 people.
Critics say the apps encourage immigrants who are in the country illegally to flout the law.
But Bruna Bouhid, a United We Dream spokeswoman, said Notifica encourages migrants to prepare for encounters with law enforcement, not defy them. And the Border Patrol does not object to the practice, although it generally prohibits filming at border crossings and checkpoints.
“It’s legal to record agents like any law enforcement [or] government official in public view,” said Carlos Diaz, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman.
The Border Patrol does not equip agents with body and dashboard cameras but is studying the possibility. In May, the agency started a six-month pilot program testing both types of cameras in nine border areas, including two in California and two in Texas.
“As the first federal law enforcement agency to complete a feasibility study of body-worn cameras, we are now ready to deploy video cameras in border environments to evaluate their ability to document law enforcement encounters effectively,” said Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan.
The ACLU and other groups have lobbied the Border Patrol to require body cameras.
“We’ve got to be sure law enforcement agencies, in particular Border Patrol, are held accountable, and when there’s an injustice, it gets recorded. Otherwise, it’s just the agent’s word against someone who may be deceased,” said Astrid Dominguez, director of the group’s Border Rights Center.
The ACLU partnered with LUPE to train residents on MigraCam in response to stepped up apprehensions and raids by Immigration and Custom Enforcement this year, she said. The crackdown is particularly concerning in Texas, she said, where state legislators passed a law — SB 4 — that requires police chiefs and sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration officials, allowing police to question the immigration status of those they arrest.
In addition to recording, the app sends alerts to designated contacts if the person filming is being detained and by which agency, she said.
For Mexicans on the border, she said, “the likelihood of them being deported fast is high. By the time their family members know, sometimes they’re already deported.”
Last month, video taken after a Border Patrol agent fatally shot a 20-year-old Guatemalan woman went viral internationally, provoking outcry in the U.S. and Central America.
Marta Martinez said she recorded the Border Patrol incident after hearing a shot outside her house in Rio Bravo, Texas.
The agent opened fire on a group of migrants, hitting Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez in the head. Gomez died, and three men traveling with her were detained.
The agent was placed on leave, officials said. The FBI and Texas Rangers are investigating. They declined to identify the agent or the migrants.
Martinez, who rushed from her house when she heard the gunshot, said law enforcement tried to stop her from filming. Instead, she said, she “started filming everywhere” after she saw the woman’s body.
Martinez, 39, had not been trained to use MigraCam, but said she felt compelled to record.
“I did it because it seemed unjust to me. And many times when unjust things happen, people don’t realize,” Martinez said at her house last weekend. FBI agents interviewed her about the video, and she has received hundreds of messages from viewers around the world.
“Many messages said if I had not filmed, no one would have known what happened,” Martinez said.
Karina Alvarez, founder of Laredo Immigrant Alliance, plans to incorporate MigraCam into the group’s neighborhood “know your rights” presentations this summer.
She said residents already filmed Border Patrol agents stopping people and posted footage on private Facebook groups associated with flea markets frequented by migrants and their families. Some people “don’t realize recording these incidents can help people’s cases and even change policy.”
At the Owassa Estates video training this month, Rocha advised immigrants to designate someone in their community with citizenship or other legal status to record law enforcement.
“So I can’t do it?” asked Milca Gonzalez, 30, who married a U.S. citizen and has been trying to get a green card after living illegally in the U.S. for nearly 20 years.
“No,” Rocha said. “But your children can.”
Rocha reviewed the basics — film horizontally, at chest level, demonstrating with her phone. Film from a car or behind a fence if necessary, she said, but “never intervene in what’s happening. Don’t put yourself at risk.”
The circle of faces nodded. They were parents, some elderly, some with babies in their arms. They were scared immigration authorities might try to separate them from their children.
“We feel impotent, like we can’t do anything. We have to prepare ourselves,” said Alberta Ramirez, 54, a LUPE organizer who lives in the adjacent trailer with her children.
At the end of the brief presentation, Rocha asked for volunteers willing to record law enforcement. Milca Gonzalez’s husband raised his hand.
Juan “Pancho” Gonzalez, 28, said he volunteered because he worried officials could try to separate his wife from their children, ages 11, 9 and 4. Two months earlier, police had chased a drug suspect into their trailer. They didn’t question his wife, but Pancho, a home healthcare provider, said he was worried what could happen if the family encountered law enforcement again. “I want my kids to be with their mom,” he said.
A young mother carrying a baby also raised her hand, volunteering her husband, a U.S. citizen. Rocha grinned.
“We have two guardians,” she said.