This April, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the launch of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office (VOICE). The central feature is a hotline built to “assist victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens” by providing updates on immigrants’ removal from the US. The office is transparent in its intent to bolster an atmosphere of anti-immigrant paranoia, and the community response has been laudable — within hours, the line was rendered unusable as prank callers flooded it with false testimonies. But this hotline is nothing out of the ordinary. A dedicated tip line for reporting migrants already exists, and it predates the Trump Administration by a decade: ICE has maintained a hotline since its inception in 2003. The surveillance of non-white populations is a practice that is etched deeply into US institutions, as is the delegation of this effort to private citizens whenever possible — with devastating impacts on accountability.
Founded in the aftermath of 9/11, ICE’s reliance on rabid anti-immigrant sentiment is no accident — it’s a foundational tenet. The Homeland Security Act, which first authorized the program, earmarked $170 million toward racialized screening programs in its first year alone. It further sanctioned the registration and monitoring of “aliens from certain designated countries.” The list of countries subject to scrutiny was not finite but could be amended at will as specified in recurring notices published in the Federal Register, leaving noncitizens subject to the changing and arbitrary whims of racist hysteria. Amidst an immobilizing climate of fear, the act was soon after amended with extended protections for citizen patrols under the See Something, Say Something Act of 2011. Cloaked in innocuous language around safety, the act granted immunity to individuals reporting suspicious activity, regardless of the veracity of their claims.
It is a terrifyingly effective strategy.
By outsourcing this surveillance through the mantra of “See Something, Say Something,” the DHS is turning Americans into snitches for the police state and shielding itself from accountability. By creating an army of snitches, DHS and other “protectors of justice” can truthfully declare that they were not profiling a particular group but merely following up on intelligence provided by “our fellow citizens.” This radical expansion of policing is thereby accomplished at a fractional cost, and as the scope of surveillance increases, the paranoia that underlies it inevitably does too.
The widespread adoption of Neighborhood Watch programs laid the cultural foundation for citizen policing. These programs centered subjects as the “eyes and ears” of the police, encouraging watchers to patrol and report suspicious behavior to the proper authorities. Gaining prominence in the era of America’s “War on Crime” — though similar, less developed projects date back to colonial North America — the patrols were part of a concerted effort toward making the public responsible for patrolling itself, and over time, surveillance came to be effectively portrayed as a civic duty. As these programs expanded, so did inquiries around how to most effectively cement social control through community monitoring. The Hartford experiment, a 1973 study funded by the Department of Justice, grappled with this very question: How could geographic impediments to surveillance (the tendency for subjects to stay indoors and thus out of sight) be mitigated through urban planning? What followed was a radical restructuring of public space that created subtle avenues for increased surveillance.
The Hartford researchers took an environmental tack to criminality. In making purposeful changes to public spaces, they sought to control the actions of those who lived among them. Still, the program set out not strictly to reduce crime but largely to reroute it within the public eye. A self-assessment one year into the program touted its success in making it “more difficult for crimes to occur unobserved and unreported.” The practice has grown to encompass an entire field of academic study, with a bizarre array of supporters: Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) studies are funded by institutions as diverse as the Heart Foundation, Disney and the Tiger Woods Foundation. As the scope of policing increases, what was once public space is reduced to a site of pre-criminality.
The rapid growth of the Minutemen border militia speaks to the widespread internalization of racialized surveillance norms. Dating back to 2004, the group advocates for more stringent immigration enforcement along the US-Mexico border, a project they’ve taken into their own hands by patrolling the region in search of undocumented migrants to report to border patrol.
The organization first gained notoriety for threatening immigrant activists and interfering with life-saving water distribution to migrants (as Border Patrol ramps up its commitment to “Prevention Through Deterrence,” by re-routing migrant paths through arid and hostile terrain, water distribution quite literally becomes a matter of life and death). The Minutemen employ a combination of hyper-militarized vigilante tactics and are routinely recruited by white supremacist groups. Despite their nativist agenda and committed paramilitary structure, the group has largely been granted legitimacy through a flurry of positive media coverage across mainstream channels. So the surveillance continues. “Border watches” are organized alongside “internal vigilance measures” focused on monitoring work sites that tend to hire undocumented migrants. Over time, a sophisticated private surveillance apparatus has emerged, with designated roles for each member and no trace of accountability in view.
A recent spate of retaliatory deportation proceedings too attests to the dangers of “See Something, Say Something” culture. Just last week, an undocumented Honduran national, Jose Flores, was detained by ICE officials after filing a workers compensation claim. Flores’ employer, Tara Construction, reported him to immigration officials in response to the claim. After a workplace injury left him incapable of providing for his family, Flores was advised by lawyers that he was well within his rights to apply for compensation despite his immigration status. After Flores vocalized his intent to do so, his employer arranged a meeting with him at which immigration officials lay in wait.
Tragically, the trap laid for Flores was not an isolated case: The Trump administration has emboldened ICE agents and those who call upon them to pursue personal vendettas and target those who pose any inconvenience. Numerous instances have been documented of deportation proceedings targeting community organizers and immigrant activists, with little attempt to hide their punitive nature. The culture of “See Something, Say Something” allows citizens to utilize ICE and the vast policing apparatus as personal enforcers.
The danger of this cultural shift goes far beyond the attack on our public spaces. The culture of “See Something, Say Something” upholds and legitimates the carceral state, while subjecting certain populations to radically differing forms of scrutiny. Though the language around the campaign is on a surface level neutral, race inevitably determines who is surveilling and who is surveilled. And while police have killed more US citizens than have been killed by terrorists in the past two decades, there remains no avenue to meaningfully say something about these abuses.
Through concerted efforts by the state spanning generations, our neighbors and communities are rendered suspect and public space, which was once an oasis, becomes stifling. As surveillance becomes the backdrop to everyday life, embodying anti-racist solidarity becomes more urgent than ever.