January 2018

In June 2011, a lengthy essay by journalist Jose Antonio Vargas was published in The New York Times Magazine. It was titled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” In the essay, Vargas talks about the complicated logistical aspects of succeeding in America while undocumented, but it is his insight into the psychological impact of feeling like an outsider in one’s own country that really resonates. Guilt seems to be the major reason for Vargas’ coming out as undocumented, as he mentions that the more success he found in his career, the more the pressure built and the more depressed he became.

Fast forward six and a half years, and the fate of DACA is in question. As of January, Federal Courts have ordered Trump to reinstate DACA, but this decision does not feel permanent. In fact, this has become one of those issues that seems to change day to day. Many in the U.S. have felt as though they are riding a political roller coaster since Trump took office, none more so than immigrants. If the Trump administration finds a way around this ruling, this means new deportation deferral applications will no longer be accepted, and renewal for Dreamers currently protected by DACA will end. Dreamers could become deportable by the thousands. One important question raised by Dreamers and immigration activists is what will become of all the information gathered for DACA applications, and will it be used against undocumented young people? However, even if there wasn’t the possibility of unfair use of official data, social media is as powerful a data mining tool as any government database.

Social Media has been used to vet immigration applications since Obama was in office, but more recently policy has been implemented that allows the US government to use social media to track immigrants for other purposes. In May of 2017, the visa application was updated to include a request for social media handles, and as of October 2017 the Department of Homeland Security is allowed to monitor the social media activity of all immigrants, including those who are in the States legally. Additionally, they plan to gather information about those who interact on social media with immigrants.

Besides the possibility for suppression of religious and political views, especially any that are of the Muslim persuasion, one of the perhaps intentional effects of this type of extreme vetting and monitoring include instilling a reluctance to attempt migration to the United States in the first place, and a reluctance on the part of citizens to be welcoming or supportive of those who do. Undocumented immigrants, as Vargas’ essay details, often feel an oppressive fear of being found out. Obviously, the psychological impact of this fear will only be magnified now that online activity is being put under a microscope. 

As our culture has moved online, it has become increasingly invasive. We know, from the 2016 presidential election, that both politicaparties have their fair share of trolls, and in this increasingly polarized and politicized time, immigrants are finding themselves on the receiving end of online abuse. In 2016, for the first time ever, an internet meme was added to the Anti Defamation League’s database of hate symbols. The meme, featuring “Pepe the Frog,” often depicts the character in racist outfits, saying racist and homophobic phrases, many of which target immigrants in some way.

It could be argued that hateful memes don’t amount to much offline, but what if the politicians are trolls themselves? In an article addressing social media threats against activists, Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s Emergencies Director referenced the kind of social media trolling that President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines uses to incite violence, pointing out that abuse via an online platform has the ability to bleed into real life. And really, how far off is Duterte’s social media presence from Donald Trump’s? They certainly share some views on the media’s place in politics, and they both have a tendency to use harsh language against those who oppose them. The most alarming commonality is how they benefit from the support of a large and dedicated network of trolls.

It is quite disturbing that platforms once used primarily to amplify the unheard and suppressed voices are now giving even more power to those who already have more than their fair share. Even so, social media has become an indispensable tool for activists. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more provide a connection to followers who are more riled up than ever.

Despite the risks, many undocumented immigrants are coming out on social media, and it is paying off. Their individual campaigns are using hashtags like #IAmAnImmigrant to raise money and awareness about undocumented issues, and rally people together in resistance to deportation. The @DreamAct twitter account has over 32 thousand followers, and its primary function is to share the urgent stories of dreamers who need immediate support in order to avoid deportation. The UndocuMedia Instagram account has 352 thousand followers, and rallies people behind relevant causes, but also encourages undocumented people to practice self-care. This account is most radical because it seems to take on the voice of an undocumented person, speaking to another undocumented person. While it is a highly politicized account, it is also funny and intimate.

As for Jose Antonio Vargas, he has continued creating media content aimed at pushing the message of undocumented immigrants to the forefront, and has even collaborated with Mark Zuckerberg and the FWD.us political advocacy group. FWD.us recognizes the relevance of tech and social media in this conversation, and one of the things the group does is monitor and archive the tweets of important national leaders, making it easier for the public to know where their senators and congressmen stand on immigration issues. Vargas has also created his own advocacy group, called Define American. 

Define American is a leading nonprofit cultural change foundation, and uses a variety of tactics to shift the conversation surrounding immigration, by partnering with media giants such as Hulu and various television networks, curating personal immigrant stories for their own digital story platform, and of course, by creating social media campaigns.

Perhaps, coming out as undocumented on social media is a risky move. Certainly, many are unwilling to take the chance, and for good reason. However, there seems to be a growing movement toward coming out in all ways, whether to admit a history of sexual harassment, one’s sexual orientation or gender fluidity, and now even immigration status. For whatever reason, people are collectively realizing that silence, while safer in many situations, only impedes progress.

Everyday we encounter signs that guide us through society. These signs direct us in traffic, help us navigate a new environment, and provide instructions for how to be law-abiding citizens. Beyond solely the physical, literal signage we’re used to seeing on the street, signs also take the form of signals and symbols. Whether permanent or temporary, signs undoubtedly play a role in shaping human interaction. Street signs have become a cultural phenomenon of sorts — engaging individuals to search for spelling mistakes and when traveling internationally, faulty translations. Specifically in the United States, I researched street signs, signals, and symbols to determine how they impact American society. I propose a deep visual analysis looking into the border division and/or order caused by such signage. At what point does one realize they’re being directed? Additionally, how do signs, signals, and symbols offer a diagnosis for division caused in society?

Grant Plotkin is a sophomore at The New School — Parsons School of Design // Eugene Lang Liberal Arts — studying creative entrepreneurship. Fueled by the power of creativity, he hopes to bring attention to social and political issues via innovative solutions. His “A Sign of Division” project is a unique visual interpretation of how borders in the form of street signs, signals, and symbols impact society.