Future Tense

A Twitter Bot Is Posting the Names and Locations of Immigrant Detention Centers Across the U.S.

A security guard checks cars at the entrance to Casa Padre, a former Walmart which is now a center for unaccompanied immigrant children in Brownsville, Texas.
A security guard checks cars at the entrance to Casa Padre, a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas, which is now a center for unaccompanied immigrant children, on June 24, 2018. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

A Twitter bot is posting images and information about all 212 prisons and detention centers that hold immigrants across the United States, providing a systematic overview of where people are being detained in the wake of increased scrutiny on the nation’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

The bot, @Abolish_ICE_Now, has been tweeting since Friday. (As of the time of publishing, it has posted 67 tweets.) Its creator, Everest Pipkin, is a drawing and language artist. Pipkin said in an email to Gizmodo that they were motivated to create the bot as a “civic act” to provide activists with key information about these facilities.

The data for the bot was scraped from an interactive map on immigrant detention statistics published by the nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants. Pipkin’s bot combines this information with Census data and demographic and civic information about the detention centers’ locations. The tweets also attach an image of the detention facility pulled from Google Maps, Street View, or Places.

Each tweet contains different bits of information, such as the detention facility’s capacity, its latest inspection rating, the surrounding city’s population, the local government representative, who owns the facility, the city’s average temperature, the median household income, and what percentage of the local population speaks Spanish at home.

Together, these data points sketch an overview of where immigrants are detained and what these places are like. So far, it’s a pretty diverse array of sites that includes every region of the country, including border towns in Texas, suburban Massachusetts, and inland California.

By design, the bot doesn’t make any commentary about the collected data—it just presents the information, and it is up to viewers to interpret and analyze it as they see fit. That is part of its beauty: the bot is an automated tool that can generate and spread factual information more quickly and easily—and much more exhaustively—than a single living person can.

According to a 2014 Medium post by Mark Sample, an associate professor of digital studies at Davidson College, bots like Pipkin’s can be categorized as “bots of conviction” or “protest bots.” Sample identifies five characteristics that define such bots: “they are topical, data-based, cumulative, oppositional, and uncanny.” (Note: Sample uses the term “uncanny” in its Freudian sense—making visible what has been repressed or obscured.) He also lists several other notable bots in the small canon of protest bots, such as @ClearCongress, which redacts tweets by members of Congress (the extent of the redaction corresponds to the congressional approval rating), and @congressedits, which tracks anonymous edits to Wikipedia made from IP addresses associated with Congress. (It’s worth noting that because these bots are automated, they can get fooled and make mistakes—last year, some of the posts on @congressedits looked as though the bot was getting trolled by a clever Wikipedia editor.)

Sample argues that protest bots are a powerful form of civic engagement, which reflects Pipkin’s own logic for creating their bot. According to Sample, protest bots “give witness to the world we inhabit” by revealing its injustices in systematic, comprehensive, and innovative ways.

Pipkin plans to add more context to their bot in the future, such as information about the movements of detained immigrants and changes in relevant legislation. The creation is a useful educational and documentary tool, but Pipkin notes that they shouldn’t have had to create the bot in the first place. “This bot shouldn’t exist,” Pipkin wrote on Twitter. “ICE shouldn’t exist. Prisons shouldn’t exist. But maybe we should see them, situated inside of communities where many people live, work, go to school, and have normal lives.”