Xanat Sobrevilla: Oral Histories of Surveillance

I think now we’re seeing how surveillance is also another venue where bodies are profit and why basic demands to exist are so difficult to achieve. There’s a lot of enticement not to allow people to move or to stay or have rights and so I think now what I am realizing is how truly profit driven it is to surveil and how data is monetized and how, really, it’s going to be difficult to throw wrenches because of it.
Xanat Sobrevilla

Our Data Bodies (ODB) is excited to present a series of oral histories from organizers, writers, and cultural workers whose work has been steeped in resisting discriminatory surveillance technology and racialized surveillance capitalism, and has illuminated strategies for abolition and abolitionist reform. This oral history features Xanat Sobrevilla, organizer for immigration justice and rights currently with Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) in Chicago. The transcript, which has been slightly edited for clarity, follows below.



Kim M Reynolds: Can you introduce yourselfWhere you come from, where you grew up, your age, ways of knowing, what your politic is, and the work that you do now?


Xanat Sobrevilla: I’m Xanat. I am originally from Mexico. I came to the US when I was nine. As an undocumented person, I met other undocumented folks in Chicago in 2011. People were starting to organize, connect with each other, talk about status, and challenge a deportation of a friend who had been in the US since the age of two. I had just graduated from college and was starting to meet others that were in my same exact or similar experience as an undocumented person and was starting to see what organizing meant and the potential of it.  


We started as the Immigrant Youth Justice League, just a group of individual undocumented young people trying to figure it out, not necessarily with the goal of organizing but trying to just survive and push. At that time, we were trying to push on access to higher ed, work access, mental health, and deportations. It wasn’t until 2013 that we had both, that we had enough experience pushing individual deportations and asking for presidential discretion, meaning ICE simply deciding not to deport an individual because of pressure, because of equities, because of many things—But mostly because of organizing. In 2013, we became Organized Communities Against Deportations and we continued to develop our sense of what we were fighting for. That’s when we started talking about criminalization and the ways in which criminalization of Black and Brown people leads to deportations and it leads to further harm and also just the fact that we are residing in Chicago and therefore we need to also fight for less repression and less criminalization in our own neighborhoods, as well as resources.  


In 2014, we started seeing how the gang database was being used as an excuse for ICE to do raids and then to argue that a person not be eligible for bond in immigration court and be immediately deported. We started seeing people being named as gang members within immigration court and that catching everybody by surprise—Including the person fighting their case. In 2017, ICE commits an egregious raid where they break a person’s arm and in organizing with that person, Wilmer [Catalan-Ramirez], became a very public campaign and we started learning about how the CPD or the Chicago Police Department uses and feeds the gang database. By then we were already in conversations with groups like BYP100 around this idea of sanctuary as it’s understood and sold in the immigrant rights movement. How do we make it so that this idea of ‘sanctuary’ is not only immigration-related but that local police, local authorities and the city acknowledge the ways that they’re not sanctuary to many of us Black and Brown people? When we started talking with Wilmer in 2017 [about] the raid and what we were learning, that’s when we thought, “Let’s go in and fight this database as it impacts not only immigration, but also housing, access to work, increases police violence, and all the ways that it is harmful to all of us.” That’s when we started the campaign, among other issues that as OCAD we try to take to address criminalization and therefore directly impact deportations and the first reason we came together.  


Kim M Reynolds: Let’s talk about how you found out about the gang database in Chicago. 


Xanat Sobrevilla: We started doing court support as part of fighting individual deportations, so going with people as they had to go to hearings in front of immigration judges and having the government make their arguments and seeing the documents that the government was laying against them. Operations or raids by ICE, we tended to push back and get the reasoning for doing them and oftentimes it became, “It was a gang op,” and for us, it was like, “What’s a gang op?’ and trying to figure that out. In 2016, they did a raid at a gas station with day laborers—journaleros—and took the Brown folks even though it’s a peculiar day laborer corner where Brown folks can gather in one place and there’s white folks in the other place and they chose to go to get fingerprints and stop people that were Brown. We pushed on the racial profiling at that point. We saw that police had called them or flagged a gang-related or member being there and us learning that, again, it was the database that’s always been feeding information to ICE, basically giving information, locations, and all that—names—to ICE in that way. We got a chance in 2017 to follow that up with a lawsuit—and that had to be because of timing, and we had the opportunity, and courage of the person—and from there we were able to understand the complexity.  


Chicago doesn’t have one database, per se. We have a set of databases, or systems. We learned that it doesn’t have necessarily guidelines. It’s highly racist. 95% of the names in it are Black and Brown folks, Latinx people. I believe it’s 71 percent Black, 23-ish percent Latinx, and there’s a lot of wrong information. We knew about wrong names because of other people we worked with—And we still argue that even if they were correct in their information, it is not useful to address the violence and the lack of resources that we have in our neighborhoods and it just allows [not just] CPD to perpetrate violence, but it allows other agencies like ICE to perpetrate violence. We filed a lawsuit as organizational plaintiffs after Wilmer filed his, so BYP100, OCAD, Latino Union, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, which is another neighborhood organization. We all sued along with four individual plaintiffs, and through that we were trying to get a much better understanding of the inner workings of it. We were arguing constitutional violations—So, arguing how erroneous it is and how erroneous information is shared with third parties. As a campaign overall, we’re arguing against the use of surveillance. It doesn’t serve a purpose other than allow for a cop to—instead of showing up when they’re pulling you over with one vehicle—to show up with multiple. It’s like a green light to harass people as they’re walking and question them. All that to say that it’s a vicious cycle. You get either added without knowing and by interacting with an officer—it doesn’t even have to be arrest-initiated or reasoning—and then it allows for further questioning and stopping. So, that’s been a fight. We know that it’s not an easy fight. We’re in it since 2017, so that’s three years.  


Campaigns like these are going to take time and a lot of work. We’re also trying to see it not only as a harm reduction, but hopefully as a way to push for resources. We already made the argument and continue to make the argument that a database like this doesn’t improve our safety, it doesn’t address violence at all in Chicago. We have proven other ways would do that, through violence prevention teams, through mental health clinics—And those are the things that we would like the city to create funds for instead of funding databases like this. And also addressing the harm. I mean, the big wish and goal is to fight for reparations and maybe even defunding of policing through this demand. That’s all in our bucket and we’re gonna fight for it, but that makes it more complex. 


Kim M Reynolds: Can you expand on some of the strategies that you have utilized in the work that you’ve done around combating surveillance and discriminatory technology? 


Xanat Sobrevilla: From the beginning, we’ve used individual campaigns—so, supporting people that are challenging their removal proceedings—through public campaigns and asking the public to help us push for specific asks. Sometimes an individual doesn’t qualify for anything within the immigration system, which is, you know, white supremacy and xenophobia. It’s not meant to allow people to qualify easily. Oftentimes, we’re dealing with demanding for discretion from ICE once an immigration judge has ruled on the removal order. In campaign mode, we often ask ourselves, “What brought this person to this situation? What are the things that we can publicly talk about and challenge so that other people who are falling in the same situation because of that same reason, don’t?” Through public campaigns and pushing for discretion, we’re often highlighting the funneling of and allowing for that to happen. As OCAD, we believe deportations—all deportations—shouldn’t happen. We should be able to move. So, it’s always trying to move that conversation with individual campaigns. Individual campaigns allowed us to learn the system and its little, you know, intricacies and inform what are the things, policies, or even just demands that we should be making collectively.  


That’s what informed the campaign for the gang database. It was through Wilmer [and] learning the intricacies and then realizing that this is huge; That a lot of people in Chicago are impacted by and if we could address it we could hopefully reduce some of the harm that people face in Chicago. Through that just lately learning that litigation sometimes allows some of that pushback, some of that—People going with us and learning and pushing back on systemic issues. As a campaign for the gang database, we’ve done a lot of teach-ins—we’ve called them block parties, even—getting people sharing space in neighborhoods and then talking about [and] connecting on what it is that’s an issue. We’ve done FOIA clinics—helping people submit individual FOIAs, especially youth—to see in the database because it’s a highly secretive way of surveilling people. You’re not told if you’re in it, at least not in Chicago. We’ve done webinars through the pandemic, and conversations with people that were placed in [the gang database] as very young people—I mean, we’ve known people 12 years old, 13 years old being placed in it—hearing their experiences and now some of them [are] violence prevention workers and working with other youth on the streets trying to address things that pop up. Also, just reflecting on how this is a continuous roadblock to actual healing and being safe in our in our communities. We’ve done FOIA requests as a group, trying to get more information out. We’ve learned that gang databases are pervasive at the city level, state levels, even federal level, so there’s—And they look differently, even within the Chicagoland area. You have suburbs that have their own and they work a little differently… So making those connections. There was a time we also convened with people in New York, in California hearing how their databases worked—Overlaps and differences. Ultimately, a very common thing of them is that they’re very racist and used for racial profiling, essentially. 


Kim M Reynolds: Can I ask you to talk about some of the generative outcomes of collaborating with BYP, with Just Futures Law, with Mijente? 


Xanat Sobrevilla: I think it’s information sharing. It’s a place where we also brainstorm the questions and go through the information we gather and the experiences people have locally [and] across states. Building community. I mean, specific to BYP100 and OCAD, since we all are in Chicago, it’s about kind of figuring out what are the needs or things our members or our communities are wanting and creating that political analysis around databases and surveillance. That’s also something that we are talking more and more about: How do we break down the many ways we’re surveilled? The gang database being one of them, but also things that I am myself learning the complexities of the funding of it, of the web of it all, and how high and how local and federal it is—even across countries—as a Mexican learning how international data sharing works. We’ve been talking a lot about, “How do we have these conversations [where we] talk about safety?” Clearview was something that people pointed out for us as OCAD. Other surveillance methods we’ve been also talking about—as Chicago and as with other states—are license plate readers or things that we know ICE uses when they perform raids. In 2016, when they did the day laborer operation—the raid—they used fingerprint readers or little cell phone lookalike fingerprint readers. We’re still trying to figure out the web and how to throw a wrench in this and then how to break it down and how to collectively as communities organize around it. 


Kim M Reynolds: What are some of the realizations you’ve had with the overlap of the ethos of the work that you’re doing around the end of deportations and the immense need for dignityand the end of law enforcement in many waysand how technology is such a driver of violence of indignity? What are some of the connections you’ve made at OCAD about surveillance and injustice in the work that you’re trying to do? 


Xanat Sobrevilla: I think going in, from the get-go, is the understanding that our bodies are profit. With deportation, there’s a lot of profit through detention and the cost of communicating with someone, the cost of bonds, and ankle monitors, and accessing food—All that is profit-driven. So, from the get-go we knew that. I think now we’re seeing how surveillance is also another venue where bodies are profit and why basic demands to exist are so difficult to achieve. There’s a lot of enticement not to allow people to move or to stay or have rights and so I think now what I am realizing is how truly profit driven it is to surveil and how data is monetized and how, really, it’s going to be difficult to throw wrenches because of it. I mean, just seeing how privatized it is, too. Learning that even our Chicago Police Department, even if we were to defund it locally, there’s a lot of private funds that go into it and a lot of technology being managed there as well. I think that’s a bigger, recent thought coming down, just the profitability of it all. We knew it was there, but how deep and then how surveillance is intwined with that. 


Kim M Reynolds: What have your strategies have been? Can you share some of the wins or some of the progression that you’ve seen with your campaigning?  


Xanat Sobrevilla: I hope more people are aware of how we’re being used and how CPD uses data to excuse and do the cycle of harm. One of our main goals was to put in people’s minds the concept of criminalization and then in the immigrant world, ‘crimagration,’ as we call it. Connect the word, systems merge. I think now talking about surveillance as a thing as well as a tool of criminalization is something. Conversations in our communities has been a goal.  


Victories? In terms of the Chicago gang database, just recently over the summer CPD committed to not using SROs, or the school resource officers—which are cops in schools—not to be adding students’ names to the database because that was one thing that we made public. One of the realizations was that a lot of kids were being added to the database while in school by SROs, so the hope is that from now on, that’s not going to happen. We’ve managed to get the city to commit to not using gang arrest cards, interactions where they, on a piece of paper, decide that you belong to a certain gang and just file it without you even being arrested or having that conversation [and] sometimes not knowing that they just filled this out for you. In that sense, some harm reduction. Our goal, of course, is to address the harm fully. We also, about a year or two [ago], learned about the Cook County database. The Sheriff there wanted to sell the database or transfer it to another party. We were able to intervene and kill that. So, there’s been—for the community and for us—discovering different gang databases and challenging them publicly. 


Kim M Reynolds: What is the status of the lawsuit against ending the Chicago gang database?  


Xanat Sobrevilla: The lawsuit, as of a month or two, we were able to close it. We dismissed it without prejudice, meaning we could refile or people can refile arguments. Unfortunately, in the courts, the argument that we were able to bring up was around the constitutionality of sharing incorrect data, again with us knowing that even if it’s correct data it shouldn’t exist. But we wanted to at least have a platform to push and certain understandings, like getting rid of the arrest cards. In the process of negotiating and conversations with the city, they counteracted with the new gang database, which would address some of the constitutionality of it. Of course, we don’t want a politically correct or constitutionally correct database because it would be equally harmful. We decided to dismiss without prejudice, address some of the larger harms of the new gang database so it would have a way for people to be taken out and pushing as much as possible that the burden be on the police and not on the person. Currently, we’re not in front of a judge. We could be if we see violations to that agreement that brought us to that conclusion.  


In terms of [an] ordinance, as a collective of organizations we’re in the process of finalizing what we want to ask. We wanted to have a form of reparations, a form of not only getting rid of the database, but a form of addressing harms, so that’s what we’re working on. We know that our asks are more doable because of the conversations and the movements that have been happening in the past years. Nevertheless, I think it’s gonna be a lot of more pushing and getting more of our community on board with us. I’m not pessimistic, I just know that it’s gonna be some work. 


Kim M Reynolds: I was really interested in kind of your point around what you mean by ‘sanctuary’ and how you’re trying to define that and how that may find overlaps or is it in contrast to how it’s litigated against or talked about within immigration work.  


Xanat Sobrevilla: The word “sanctuary” is thrown a lot—For the last few years, if not decades, as a word to mean where immigrants could feel safe. Where you could have this idea that for somehow deportations or ICE wasn’t the same interaction as you would have maybe in non-sanctuary cities. But as an undocumented person, that is oftentimes void of meaning or actual content. There’s ways we’ve named how, “Look, Chicago does talk and collaborate with ICE, even if it’s not calling each other directly.’ They’re talking through data, they’re talking through arrests, and they’re talking through other ways. I think, collectively, why do we just have to talk about lack of, you know, visible communication amongst them, so when we threw the word expanded, was in an attempt to kind of break this PR around just the word sanctuary to then suggest that people think about resources that are negated to Black and Brown folks in the city. Also, talking about arrest and the ways that people are put in the system so that then the other system—immigration—takes over.


So, challenging local agencies to actually be more accountable for the way they treat Black and Brown communities and how they’re directly impacting and feeding ICE. It’s this idea of adding analysis around criminalization and also how resources are deprived in our communities and, therefore, we can’t say that as a Black or Brown person we feel safe because we’ve been taken out of the equation of care from the get-go. So, when they’re talking about sanctuary, that it actually means something for us. 


Kim M Reynolds: It’s thrown around in a real way like, “We can make this place a sanctuary city,” or there’s demands for it. But when it comes to like the material kinds of mechanisms that would create that, they actually run up a lot against the state and the state’s capacity to really change at all. What are some of the things you’d like to see happen within the work that you do? 


Xanat Sobrevilla: Immediately, it would be great to make ICE and CPD’s jobs more difficult. Continually finding ways of making it that a removal is so freakin difficult and even taking away powers, not only through policy but also through people’s minds. So, creating community that doesn’t give so much power to those systems and is empowered to challenge them. It’s always exciting as we see more and more of our communities saying, “Heck, no, I’m not going to be removed and I want to challenge this process,” which a decade or two—even for me as a young person—came with a lot of shame and fear. Taking away that fear and shame for us is just super enriching for the person and then figuring out how to chip away at these local police.  


Kim M Reynolds: What future do you want? 


Xanat Sobrevilla: A place where people can thrive and I can thrive and we can feel like we’re not just surviving but we can breathe and relax and we’re not constantly looking at our backs in fear or concern that we’re disposable. 


Kim M Reynolds: Is there anything that you feel like you’d like to address, anything you’d like to add on?  


Xanat Sobrevilla: As OCAD, we’re still exploring fusion centers [and] we’ve talked with organizations here that work with the Arab community. We’ve worked with someone who the FBI placed as a terrorist and as a Palestinian couldn’t be deported, so an indefinite detention. As always, we’re trying to learn from others’ experiences and work. I think this is great, that we get to hear from others’ work and what they’ve discovered and how they’ve tackled it. We are also just learning and trying to figure out things. Any spaces we can hear from each other and complement each other is always great and appreciated. I think we’re, as OCAD, still trying to figure out how to go and best go about capacity in the fights that will give us some of the wins that we need and eventual longer-term victories.