How the Government’s Surveillance Practices Criminalize Communities of Color [OPINION]

By Ramla Sahid, Steven Renderos Jul 20, 2018

The Trump administration’s executive orders singling out immigrants and refugees of color, including the “Muslim ban” recently upheld by the Supreme Court, have not only established an inhumane policy on the ground, but have helped expand a “virtual” border that is exacerbating the danger that vulnerable communities already face.

As children sleeping in detention centers remain separated from their families, it’s clear that there’s no end to the brutality that this administration can imagine. And technology is playing a key role in aiding the imagination of federal agencies intent on criminalizing people of color, especially when it comes to law enforcement’s ability to monitor groups it deems "dangerous."

From the use of facial recognition software in cameras at the United States-Mexico border to the Department of Homeland Security scanning social media history as part of its Extreme Vetting Initiative, high-tech predictive-policing is spreading within immigration enforcement—and it is built on existing religious, ideological, ethnic and racial bias in this country.

It’s past time for Congress to intervene and protect our communities from further isolation.

Of course the bias that fuels the discriminatory use of surveillance today is linked to hundreds of years of criminalization and policing of Black communities, from the lantern laws of the 18th century to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cointelpro program of the 1960s and ’70s to the Bureau’s ongoing dangerous focus on so-called “Black Identity Extremists.” The physical and virtual borders are connected by this history of American White supremacy and are merging in certain communities most impacted by our current wave of xenophobia.

For instance, the federal Countering Violent Extremism program (which began under the Obama administration) has partnered with local programs in cities like Boston, Los Angeles and San Diego to obtain data on American Muslim communities without most participants knowing that their info is being sent to the federal government—and without any safeguards to ensure that this data won’t be used for intelligence-gathering or criminal prosecution.

The Somali community in San Diego, which sits at the crossroad of multiple biases, has witnessed firsthand what discriminatory high-tech monitoring can lead to. In 2015, “Hawalas,” or informal networks of money-transfer agents that are a popular alternative to banking worldwide, were squashed by government officials during one of the worst humanitarian crises and famines to hit Somalia. More than one million people were in need of emergency food assistance, with an additional two million struggling to meet basic food needs, but the National Security Agency—using wiretaps and other invasive tech—decided that Hawalas were a threat to U.S. security. People in the Somali community relied on this money-transfer system to send emergency remittance to needy family members whom they could not otherwise reach—but in this desperate moment, their ability to do so was shut down by a blanket presumption of criminality.

Intense local and federal law enforcement collaboration, based on flawed intelligence, has ruined the lives of many young Black men in this community. Cases are often settled out of court because of law enforcement bullying and intimidation of family members without any real evidence of wrongdoing.

Under the Trump administration, increases in the social media surveillance of immigrants have contributed to a 40 percent rise in immigration-related arrests by ICE. Of the 213 incidents of hate violence specifically aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern and Arab communities in the United States in the year following the 2016 general election, one in five perpetrators invoked President Trump’s name, his administration’s policies, or his campaign slogans during their attacks.

This administration’s rhetoric and high-tech surveillance programs are clearly putting immigrants of color in even greater danger and reinforcing a public perception that certain people—based on the color of their skin, the faith they practice, where they are perceived to be from—are undesirable members of our society and somehow less deserving of human rights. Groups like the Somali Americans in San Diego, as Black Muslims from a state in turmoil, face this targeting on multiple levels. Labeled as perpetual outsiders, they become easy targets for law enforcement and their latest spying tools.

Understanding the urgency of this fight, a delegation of leading Muslim, Arab and South Asian American activists, organized by The Center for Media Justice, are uniting this week at The Color of Surveillance conference in Washington D.C. We’re demanding more transparency and accountability around existing law enforcement surveillance practices, and urging our Congressional leaders of color to intervene on our behalf to prevent further exclusion, dehumanization and violence.

Though this battle against being watched is as old as this country, there is a more horrifying future on the horizon, and none of us can afford to look away.

Ramla Sahid is the executive director for Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans. She is on Twitter at @ramla_sahid.

Steven Renderos is the organizing director at The Center for Media Justice. He is on Twitter at @stevenrenderos.