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The power of phones for Honduran migrants during their multi-country journey to the United States

Sylvia in Honduras sitting in a plastic chair talking with residents.

Tuesday, 03/14/2023

Carrying a cell phone might feel risky to Honduran migrants making their way northward to the United States. But new research by University of Michigan School of Information scholars suggests that the benefits for staying connected along the journey outweigh the risks– at least until reaching the border. 

“A lot of the literature on the intersection of technology and migration has tended to focus on migrants' experiences when they're reaching a border or when they're already within their destination country,” says UMSI doctoral candidate Sylvia Darling, who is lead author of the paper. 

She and her coauthor and advisor, professor Kentaro Toyama, wanted to understand the role that digital technologies played during the migration journey. Specifically, the researchers wanted to understand how cellular phones were used by Honduran irregular migrants who were traveling to the United States and what their concerns were with carrying mobile devices. 

Darling did semi-structured interviews with 26 Hondurans who traveled north either with coyotes (human smugglers), caravans, or on their own. She also accompanied people during their everyday activities to gain more context about their migratory experiences. 

“The journey is very arduous and hostile,” says Darling. “It's 2,700 miles of desert, hostile terrain, and many encounters with corrupt law enforcement and drug cartels.” She says using a phone is a way to keep in touch with their families, but also to navigate the journey more safely.

“I asked them to tell me everything that happened in their journey, but also how tech factors into that experience,” she explains. She also wanted to hear what fears and concerns people had about using their phones, and ultimately what benefits they saw to carrying or using a phone. 

She found that access to technology greatly varied depending on how migrants traveled. Those who traveled with a coyote experienced a complicated power dynamic, says Darling. “These human smugglers were confiscating migrants' phones as a way to limit the potential of being subjected to law enforcement and keep their illicit activities under wraps,” she explains.

For those traveling in caravans, people used phones more freely and also to coordinate their journey. “The whole idea with migrant caravans is that there's strength in numbers,” Darling says, adding that members of the caravan work together in the interest of the whole collective, to make sure that they're making steady progress. Phones are a great way to access information.

“Participants that traveled solo were not able to afford phones, but that does not stop them from being able to access the phones,” says Darling. Solo migrants relied on “Good Samaritans” in Guatemala and Mexico who sympathize with migrants’ plight and let them borrow their phones, she says. 

Darling says migrants used clever ways to circumvent monitoring of phone conversations. “Some people would use coded phrases and communication to speak with the people to limit the possibility of authorities figuring out where they are,” she says. Other times, migrants would remove the batteries from their phones or even crush the mobile devices as they approach border zones. But, as participants’ accounts of their deportation showed, none of these tactics were effective against getting detained by immigration authorities.

Darling says migrants also had a concern about having a phone on them while they traveled through cartel territories. “Cartels are extremely active in northern Mexico,” says Darling, adding that kidnapping is a real threat. 

“People were also concerned about how having sensitive information stored in their phones would give the cartels access to information about their relatives, which would be necessary for extorting them for a ransom.” But, if a cartel wants to extract information from a migrant, Darling says they don’t necessarily need a phone.

“I want to emphasize that it is a dangerous undertaking that they do,” says Darling. “However, the risk that having access to a phone poses to migrants is very negligible.” In particular, she notes their research shows that having a phone — or at least access to a phone and information — can better facilitate migrants’ journeys and keep them safer. “Migrant shelters and humanitarian agencies can play an important role in providing technology access to migrants.”
 

RELATED:

Read “Coyotes, Caravans, and Connectivity: Digital Practices among Honduran Irregular Migrants.” 

Learn more about UMSI doctoral candidate Sylvia Darling.

Learn more about UMSI professor Kentaro Toyama