Central American Migration and Communication Technologies: A Critical Approach to Network Infrastructures and Inequalities

Written by Michele Ferris-Dobles, Ph.D. Student at the Communication Department of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Central American father and son looking at their mobile phone during one of the Central American migrant caravans to the U.S in 2018

I am a turtle, wherever I go, I carry ‘home’ on my back.” –Gloria Azaldúa (1987)1

It is impossible to think about the history of humankind without thinking about migration. Mobility has always been a crucial factor of human survival. I was born in the region of Central America, a territory that has been historically traversed by countless stories of migration. The Central American – United States (U.S.) corridor is the world’s largest and most populated migratory area in the world, with hundreds of thousands of immigrants crossing it every year.2  Migration is so prevalent in this region that between 10 and 12 percent of its population have migrated to the U.S.3 As a Central American, this reality has permeated my life and subsequently my research interests.

For the past several years I have been researching the interconnections between human mobilities and communication technologies, focusing on the case of Central American migration to the U.S.  My research began in 2016 while traveling through Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico filming a documentary about Central American forced migration to the U.S (Check it out if you want to learn more about the causes and roots of Central American forced migration to the U.S https://www.casaentierrajena.com/). During our work, we visited several Central American communities where thousands of people had migrated to the U.S as well as various migrant shelters in Mexico, where we conducted more than 35 interviews about the experiences of migration. These conversations revealed how crucial mobile phones with Internet access are for migrants and their families as these technologies facilitated immediate transnational interpersonal communication. The affordances of platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook provide migrants with the possibility of instant communication with family members and acquaintances. Through the sharing of texts, audios, videos, and photos, social media platforms were facilitating the emergence of online affective networks across national borders.

Central American woman using her mobile at one of the shelters during the mobilization of the Central American migrant caravans to the U.S in 2018

The use of communication technologies in the migratory context are highly driven by affect and emotion.4 These technologies enable a global mediatized emotional exchange that provides a sense of safety and feeling of proximity between the migrants and their families. Such conditions have guided my current doctoral research, which explores how communication technologies and digital networks are influencing people’s drive or desire to migrate as well as how these technologies are transforming migratory patterns and experiences.

During times of crisis, online affective networks become salient5 as they provide spaces for social organization, information sharing, and the exchange of narratives of support and solidarity between individuals and collectives that share common fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams.6  My initial research focused broadly on the interconnections between human mobility and communication technologies, but later I found myself looking not only at the affordances, functions, and uses of communication technologies by Central American migrant communities, but also at infrastructures and their materiality. This approach has allowed me to understand not only the personal uses of the mobile phone and social media platforms; but also to look at the historical, political, and economic arrangements that enable transnational communication and digitized emotional exchanges to take place. It is not sufficient to understand the interconnections between migrancy and communication technologies by just looking at their uses; we need to also observe the material tensions and forces at play.

Mobile phones being charged at one of the immigrant shelters during the mobilization of the Central American migrant caravans to the U.S in 2018

To examine such material forces, for instance, I have looked critically at the “borderless” mobile phone plan offered by CLARO, which is a mobile phone and Internet plan that allows a person to use the same mobile phone and plan from Central America to Canada across national borders. I began to explore the infrastructures and arrangements that are allowing the mobile phone to operate across national borders by considering the following questions: What historical, political and economic arrangements have enabled Central American migrants to use the same mobile phone and plan across national borders while transiting from their home countries to the U.S? What technological infrastructures allow this to happen? Which corporations own these infrastructures and technologies? To explore this inquires I have been focusing my research in three pillars: a) historical-political overview of the privatization of telecommunications in the Central American region; b) the economic arrangements behind the privatization of telecommunications in Central America; and c) the technological infrastructure and its materiality.

Diagram that explains the Push-Pull dynamic between communication technologies and nation-state borders
Diagram by author

To explore these issues, I apply elements from Sassen’s theoretical framework of the Sociology of Globalization7 to argue that the implementation of free trade agreements between Central America and the U.S in the 2000s not only provoked the reorganization of labor in the region, but also transformed the telecommunication infrastructures from being public utilities into profitable commodities run by private multinational corporations. The privatization of telecommunications imposed by the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA) has allowed multinational telecommunication corporations to operate and implement their infrastructure across national borders, which allows them to offer the “borderless” mobile phone plan. Today, with its more than 4500 communication towers located throughout Central American and Mexican territories, CLARO is the main multinational telecommunication provider for the region. As it offers mobile phone plans across national borders CLARO has become a superpower telecommunications corporation. The company is a subsidiary of America Movil, a Mexican multinational company owned by Carlos Slim, the richest man in Latin America and one of the top 10 wealthiest people in the world. 

Through my ongoing doctoral research, I hope to unpack the different components and dynamics that have created the “borderless” mobile phone and explore its effects on human mobilities.  This research sheds light on questions of power and issues of exclusion/inclusion, particularly by exposing a central paradox: at the same time that global capital promotes and enables a “borderless” world through the use of communication technologies that promote emotions of trust, safety, and closeness, nation-state borders are becoming more harsh, surveilled, and rigid for migrants.

Claro Plan Sin Fronteras “Borderless Plan”
Advertisement from www.claro.com

John Durham Peters argues that civilization is constituted by numerous infrastructures that are ubiquitous yet suggests we hardly take notice of them.8 In the context of migration, the infrastructures that allow the mobile phone to become an imperative tool for Central American migrants are hidden in plain sight. They also are changing the traditional patterns of migration. The “borderless” dynamics under which CLARO operates and the services it offers are an example of how digital capitalism expands beyond nation-state borders, yet, at the same time, constrains the movement of certain people.

Migration is an ongoing process, one that is highly complex and shaped by multiple factors that range from the micro to the macro.9 There is no single cause that can explain someone’s decision to leave their country of origin. The story of a transnational migrant reveals at a micro level the most personal, intimate, and emotional motivations for migrating, but it also presents macro level factors that force people to migrate, including poverty, social exclusion, violence, political instability, and environmental displacement. This dual micro/macro approach exposes the political and economic inequalities across nation-states and the disparities caused by globalization; it uncovers issues of power by displaying both the structural and personal causes of human displacement. I aim to understand the complexity and the role that communication technologies play at both the micro and macro levels of migration. 

In The Age of Migration, Castles, et al, indicate that migrating is rarely an individual’s independent decision; rather, it is a decision highly influenced by the connections that migrants have to their social networks and is mainly driven by emotion.10 Building on this migratory theory my research acknowledges that the transnational connections that communication technologies facilitate are highly emotional and create strong social ties and digital networks across state borders. I will be exploring how new communication technologies have altered the ways migrant social networks are formed, how these networks operate, and the ways migrants share information, organize, communicate, and make decisions. In addition, I am interested in how migrant communities utilize these technologies to create sovereign digital networks11 that work for their benefit and under their own terms. Despite the implementation of harsh migratory policies, surveillance technology, and strict border control, through the use of communication technologies, migrant networks are more connected than ever before.12

As nation-state borders are becoming harsher and more rigid for Central American migrants, communication technologies simultaneously promote the perception of a “borderless” world by connecting people transnationally and enable the exchange of emotions and information. This creates a kind of digitized emotional proximity that stands in stark contrast to the physical materiality and infrastructure of national borders. This dichotomy creates a push-pull dynamic as migrant communities create strong digital social networks that unite them, while, at the same time, borders and migratory policies aim to keep people separated.

This is particularly significant in the context of neoliberalism and globalization, as communication technologies play a crucial role in creating a global information economy, while countries still operate under a nation-state logic with rigid national borders and laws.13 In this context, migrants are suspended within the tension generated between globalization processes and nation-state dynamics.14 In this sense, this research understands national borders as fluid infrastructures15 which allow commodities, technologies, information, and communication to flow at the same time it restrains certain groups of people.  Relations of inclusion and exclusion coexist within and are shaped by borders. 

As the world has become increasingly open to the flow of commodities, capital, and communication, we have seen very little improvement and consideration for the security and the rights of vulnerable and displaced people who are forced to migrate often as a result of open economic policies, among other factors. As of now, my work is in its early stage and provides more questions than answers. In the future, I will be conducting extensive ethnographic research that will tackle some of these questions with the aim of demystifying stereotypes and assumptions about Central American migration. Understanding the migrant’s digital networks is a powerful and unique way to listen to their voices.

Note: Author reproduces some of the illustrations under the Fair Use Guidelines.

 

1 Azaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands, La Frontera. San Francisco, California: Aunt Lute Books Ed.

2 Massey, D., Arango, J., Hugo, G., Kouaouci, A., & Pellegrino, A. (1993). Theories of international migration: A review and appraisal. Population and Development Review, 19(3), 431–466.

3 Sandoval, C. (2017). Exclusion and Forced Migration in Central America: No More Walls. Springer Ed. San Jose, Costa Rica.

4 Brinkerhoff, J. (2010) Digital Diasporas, Engagement and Transnational Identity. New York: Cambridge Press (2009)

Ros, A. (2010). Interconnected Immigrants in the Information Society. In Alonso, A., & Oiarzabal, P. J. (Eds) Diasporas in the New Media Age: Identity, Politics, and Community. (pp.19-38) Nevada: University of Nevada Press.

5 Papacharissi, Z. (2015) Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

6 Papacharissi, Z. (2015): Affective publics and structures of storytelling: sentiment, events and mediality, Information, Communication & Society. DOI:10.1080/1369118X.2015.1109697

7 Sassen, S. (1998) The De Facto Transnationalizing of Immigration Policy. Oxford University Press.

8 Peters, J.D. Infrastructuralism: Media as Traffic between Nature and Culture. Traffic: Media as Infrastructures and Cultural Practices (2015): 29-49.

9 Castles, S., Miller, M., and De Haas, M. (1993) The Age of Migration. New York: The Guilford Press.

10 Ibid.

11 Duarte, M. (2017) Network Sovereignty: Building the Internet across Indian Country. U.S.A: University of Washington Press.

12 Brinkerhoff, J. (2010) Digital Diasporas, Engagement and Transnational Identity. New York: Cambridge Press (2009)

13 Fisher, E. (2010) Media and New Capitalism in the Digital Age. U.S.A: Palgrave Macmillan Ed

14 Sassen, S. (2000) Digital Networks and the State: Some Governance Questions. Theory, Culture & Society.

15 Mezzadra, S and Neilson, B. (2013) Border as a Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor. U.S.A: Duke University Press.

About the author

Michele Francis Ferris-Dobles was born in Costa Rica, Central America. She is a PhD student in the Communication Department of the University of Illinois at Chicago and a professor and researcher at the School of Communications of University of Costa Rica. She is a two-time Fulbright scholarship recipient, and her current research focuses on the interconnections between communication technologies and human migration, the analysis of digital social networks that connect displaced and vulnerable communities, and the study of media infrastructures that connect people transnationally.