The Use of Technology at an Increasingly Busy U.S.-Mexico Border

BU Intl Human Rights
5 min readApr 12, 2024

December 2023 set a new record for encounters between U.S. Border Patrol Agents and migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. In total, there were 249,735 encounters, breaking the previous May 2022 record of about 224,000 encounters. This new record speaks to several factors, including the increase of migrants coming from countries such as China, Russia, Haiti, and Venezuela. In the past, the majority of migrants typically originated from countries including Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. However, December 2023 saw 133,999 encounters with migrants from countries other than those four. Another factor many experts identify as a reason behind the increase in migration at the U.S.-Mexico border is the use of technology, both on the part of the migrants and on government actors concerned with border patrol

As reported by CBS News, when asked how they planned their trip to the U.S/Mexican border, many Chinese migrants had the same answer: “TikTok.” The social media platform features videos with detailed descriptions of travel routes, instructions on how to hire smugglers, and directions on how to enter the United States, often circumventing standard ports of entry..

Chinese migrants are not the only ones who report using TikTok to help plan their journey to the United States. The Associated Press reported a huge increase of migrants from countries such as Senegal flying to Nicaragua to journey to the United States via land routes. How did these migrants discover the possibility of this migration route? Social networking sites such as WhatsApp and TikTok. Through these apps, migrants can buy airline tickets, pay guides and smugglers, and plan out the routes of their journeys. Not only do the social media posts help plan the journeys of migrants who have decided to head to the United States, but they may have caused many migrants to consider new destinations altogether.. Many of them are now looking towards the United States rather than the European countries to which they historically tended to immigrate.

Social networking sites have become so popular with migrants and viewers interested in their journeys that for some, migrating has become a profession. As reported by The New York Times, 35 year-old Venezuelan migrant Miguel Monterrosa attracted so many views of his YouTube series depicting his migration through the Darien Gap he has decided to do it all again. As Mr. Monterrosa explained, “Migration sells. My public is a public that wants a dream.” Many migrant content creators view themselves as citizen journalists and educators, helping others understand what migration demands and allowing their followers to make informed decisions on whether to risk it. While many videos tell the tragic stories of loved ones who died or disappeared while migrating to the United States, the drastic increase in the use of social media in migration has undoubtedly led to more migration through areas such as the Darien Gap and eventually into the United States.

A group of migrants pose for a photo during the beginning of their trek through the Darien Gap

Many refugee organizations also consider access to technology to be a basic human right that refugees are entitled to have access to. Technology can help guide a migrant’s journey to their new country and help them navigate the challenges they face during their travels and upon arrival. Technology also helps migrants and refugees have greater access to education, healthcare, social connections, income, and skills-development services. Organizations such as Al Otro Lado use TikTok to post informative videos on topics like U.S. immigration policies and access to asylum, all in multiple languages.

At the same time, however, technology and social networks can be dangerous for many migrants. Many governments use technology to track the movements of migrants, and migrants have to be careful when and how they use their phones as they approach borders. Border Patrol uses satellites, drones, and offshore sensors to detect the movement of people far before they reach the border. Governments, traffickers, and smugglers have also been known to access data from GPS apps to track the movements of migrants. This means that the technology many migrants heavily rely on to make a quicker, safer journey can increase their chances of arrest, detention, and kidnapping.

There have also been many reports of misleading and false information being spread through social networking sites such as WhatsApp, TikTok, and Facebook. Many of these sites have pages controlled by smuggling and trafficking groups who use their posts to lead migrants into dangerous situations where they can easily be taken advantage of. To combat this possibility, migrants can try to compare information seen on one site to the information found on other sites. They also try to get firsthand accounts from people they trust and have made the journey. Still, it is increasingly difficult for many migrants to discern between fact and fiction. As one migrant from Syria said, “I don’t trust any news or information people tell me. I trust no one. Only my mother.”

A group of Chinese migrants who used TikTok videos to plan their route into the United States. CBS News

The United States also employs technology in a specific manner that makes the journey for migrants longer and more treacherous. Launched in October 2020, the CBP One App, run by the U.S. Border Patrol, requests migrants to schedule an appointment to present themselves at a land Port of Entry. Designed to better organize the increasing number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, the CBP One App has created confusion and long wait times, often requiring migrants to book months in advance. Additionally, many migrants lack the digital literacy to navigate the CBP One App and properly book an appointment. And even if migrants have strong digital literacy skills, the CBP App is only offered in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole, blocking accessibility to migrants who don’t speak one of those three languages. Organizations such as Amnesty International have alleged that apps such as CBP One violate a migrant’s right to seek asylum. CBP One has led many migrants to enter the United States without authorization through holes in the border fence rather than wait for months in dangerous border towns.

Many migrant advocates encourage a more human rights-based approach to the use of technology in immigration. A UN Human Rights study published in September of 2023 points to multiple ways countries can align their use of technology with a human rights approach. First and foremost, the study argues for transparency from governments on how and when they use technology to track and communicate with migrants. The study also encourages governments to undertake a human rights assessment of technologies in use, to carry out regular reviews of these technologies by independent bodies and experts knowledgeable in technologies and human rights, and to refrain from using technology that raises serious threats to human rights abuses. By engaging in these practices, governments will be able to make the use of technology safer, easier, and more effective for many migrants entering their borders.



BU Intl Human Rights

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.