SAN DIEGO — A group of California artists wants Mexicans and Central Americans to have more than just a few cans of tuna and a jug of water for their illegal trek through the harsh desert into the U.S.
Faculty at University of California, San Diego are developing a GPS-enabled cell phone that tells dehydrated migrants where to find water. It also pipes in poetry from phone speakers, regaling them on their journey much like Emma Lazarus' words did a century ago to the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" on Ellis Island.
The Transborder Immigrant Tool is part technology endeavor, part art project. It introduces a high-tech twist to an old debate about how far activists can go to prevent migrants from dying on the border without breaking the law.
Immigration hardliners argue the activists are aiding illegal entry to the United States, a felony. Even migrants and their sympathizers question whether the device will make the treacherous journeys easier.
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The designers — three visual artists on UCSD's faculty and an English professor at the University of Michigan — are undeterred as they criticize U.S. immigration policy.
"It's about giving water to somebody who's dying in the desert of dehydration," said Micha Cardenas, 32, a UCSD lecturer.
The effort is being done on the government's dime — an irony not lost on the designers whose salaries are paid by the state of California.
Migrants walk for days in extreme heat, often eating tuna and crackers handed out at migrant shelters in Mexico. On Arizona ranches, they drink desperately from bins used by cows.
The designers want to load inexpensive phones with GPS software that takes signals from satellites, independent of phone networks. Pressing a menu button displays water stations, with the distance to each. A user selects one and follows an arrow on the screen.