Inside the New Emergency App for Undocumented Immigrants

How an advocacy organization and a tech team created Notifica to offer a small peace of mind for immigrants facing possible deportation

Notifica, a new app, is built to help give undocumented immigrants a piece of mind. Credit: LM Otero/AP

Adrian Reyna grew up knowing that one day, his family would leave their home in Monterrey, Mexico for a new one in the United States. His father, a skilled refrigeration technician, dreamed of owning a business here. When Reyna was 12, he relocated with his parents and two sisters to Humble, Texas, outside of Houston. As he translated for his Spanish-speaking parents, he learned early on what it means to live as an undocumented immigrant. "There's no way to become documented just by the stroke of a pen," says Reyna, 25, who now lives in Oakland, California. "You have to be petitioned, either through employment or a family member who's a US citizen, which is the case with my parents. My dad had a petition filed for him in 1996, and to this day, we're still waiting for that to come through." The experience made him an advocate for other people navigating a similar journey and, in the wake of the presidential election, inspired the creation of Notifica, an app that helps undocumented immigrants in the event of a deportation emergency. 

Protected by Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, Reyna is in lucky position of not having to worry about his own status – but he's built his career around helping those less fortunate. He's now the director of membership and technology strategies for United We Dream, the largest youth-led immigrant advocacy organization in the country. Panic and terror around Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids are a particularly critical issue for its constituents. "[ICE] shows up unannounced to neighborhoods, public spaces and work places," says Reyna. "Most people think, 'Oh, you can run away,' but that's not the case for many [undocumented] immigrants. It paralyzes you. You go into shock. In that moment, you have to think about all of the multiple intricacies: What are they going to do? Who should I call? What should I tell them? Having to sort through all of that in a moment of fear is impossible."

With America’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this administration’s political crosshairs and Trump’s vow to deport 2 to 3 million immigrants in 2017 alone, actionable concern is justified. The executive order on immigration issued a mere five days into his presidency made good on his campaign promise to reduce, if not decimate immigrant populations. So when Reyna met software engineer Natalia Margolis at a meet-up for Latinx people in tech, they discovered that they shared a mutual interest in helping vulnerable immigrants. Reyna had ideas about how technology could empower undocumented communities, particularly to offset the stress of an ICE raid. One of them was to design a communication network for immigrants facing deportation emergencies. 

Margolis, part of the tech team at HUGE, a Brooklyn-based digital marketing and design agency, believed in the idea's merit. "I thought that was something concrete that we as an organization with a lot of privilege and resources could work on with him," she says. "It was a great partnership because he was able to give us a lot of context about what happens when someone is being detained and what sort of features would be useful." Within 24 hours, a prototype for an app had been developed.

Designed with both English and Spanish language capabilities, Notifica allows users to preload up to 15 SMS text messages for friends, family, attorneys and other essential contacts, who will receive the alerts in less than two seconds – even if they don't have the app themselves. Users also have the option of phoning into the MigraWatch hotline, a call center manned by undocumented immigrants, to deploy their PIN-protected messages. While there's no payment capabilities to manage mortgages and other bills remotely – the HUGE team didn't want the app to store sensitive information – Reyna hopes users will engage Notifica as part of a larger emergency plan that assigns those responsibilities to a trusted person in a detainee's absence and guarantees coverage for their most critical needs. 

"If you have kids, make sure you have a point person," says Reyna. "If you're someone who needs medical attention, have somebody who can let your doctor know that you're away from your medication. We know of a lot of individuals who get detained, they're panicked and they go days without their medication. The app will help individuals think of these things way ahead of time before they happen and reduce the action that someone has to take in a moment to one simple thing. It'll shape the outcome of the entire event." United We Dream is also developing partnerships with immigration attorneys who will provide support for individual cases.

Notifica debuted at South by Southwest earlier this month and will be available for free on both Apple and Android platforms in mid-April. Once beta testing is complete, the design team will look to user feedback to envision and release an even more fine-tuned version late in the summer. Suggested messages and a faster option for dispensing necessary info quickl, are being considered for future releases. Plans are also in place to increase the app's cultural competency to serve a more diverse set of immigrant communities. "It's definitely in the road map for us to not only think about other languages but how we iterate to meet the fast-changing needs for undocumented people," says Margolis.

As word about the app spreads, with a particular focus on states with large immigrant communities like Texas, Florida and New Mexico, it's being marketed as a more viable option than social media, which has been a heavily used platform to contact family, friends and associates in deportation emergencies. Reyna hopes the app will give users a sense of control and security. He remembers having his own surge of anxiety following the election. "There was a moment when I was like, 'oh my God, this is the end. What am I going to do?'" he says. "But it was a moment to step into courage and say, 'OK, no. We're not going to let this dictate our lives. We are the owners of our own destinies.'"