Feds’ Use of Immigrant Tracking Technology Triggers Lawsuit

MAccording to federal data, more than 216,000 individuals with immigration cases pending before the U.S. courts were placed in federal government tracking programs. Federal data was released on April 14. Since President Joe Biden took office, the number of immigrants in the Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program has more than doubled, reflecting the Administration’s embrace of new surveillance technology as a tool to limit reliance on government-funded detention centers.

While immigrant advocates have long called on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) to reduce or end the use of immigrant detention centers, they say the ATD program raises a fresh set of concerns about immigrants’ privacy and civil rights. On April 14, three immigrant advocacy organizations—Just Futures Law, Mijente, and Community Justice Exchange—filed a lawsuit against ICE, calling on the agency to provide information showing what data are being collected on individuals in the ATD program, and how that data are used, either by the government or by the for-profit contractors that operate the technology.

“Policing and enforcement in immigrant communities has shifted in the last years to really depend more and more on tech and data companies,” says Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign director at Mijente. “ICE will call it an ‘alternative to detention’ even though we know that it’s really sort of an extension of the detention system.”

ATD monitored 86,860 individuals in the first days of Biden’s presidency. That number was 217,450 on April 9. An app called SmartLINK supervises approximately 75% of participants. This uses GPS tracking, facial and voice recognition and facial recognition. SmartLINK was created by BI Incorporated. This subsidiary is part of GEO Group. SmartLINK has been used in the U.S. since 2018, when the Trump Administration began to use it. According to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University research organisation, the Biden Administration significantly increased the use of the app.

The number of ICE detention center beds has fallen as a result. This is because the ATD number has increased. But it’s not a direct one-to-one correlation, says Austin Kocher, assistant professor and researcher at TRAC. He says that the ATD number has increased while those in detention have fluctuated. “[ATD]This is more of a mechanism. [ICE] to expand their ability to monitor immigrants who are in the country,” Kocher says. “So we don’t necessarily expect the detention numbers to go down just because Alternatives To Detention is increasing.” Since the start of the Biden Administration, the number of immigrants in ICE detention centers has ranged from a high of 27,217 and a low of 13,258. It’s currently above 18,000.

An ICE spokesperson would not comment on the new litigation, and issued a statement saying that a “lack of comment should not be construed as agreement with, or stipulation to, any allegations.” The spokesperson added that the agency is committed to protecting privacy rights, and the civil rights and liberties of those in the ATD program. GEO Group did not comment on SmartLINK, ATD, or both and referred the matter to ICE.

What is ICE’s Alternative to Detention Program?

A record-breaking number of ATD enrolled people make up a small fraction of millions of immigrant who aren’t detained by ICE. In August 2020, more than 3.3 million people were on ICE’s non-detained docket. These numbers include asylum seekers and people who received deportation orders or have an pending case in the U.S. immigration courts.

Despite this, advocates and immigrant communities are voicing concern about the expansion of ATD. The program allows the government to track immigrants with a variety of different technologies, including ankle monitors with GPS tracking, “telephonic reporting,” or by use of the SmartLINK app, which is either installed on a personal smartphone or installed on a locked device. SmartLINK was first utilized by ICE in 2004 for the tracking of a subset undocumented immigrant population that wasn’t in detention.

Sejal Zota, co-founder and legal director at Just Futures Law, calls the program “a digital prison.” She says immigrants monitored under ATD are asked to follow different, and sometimes inconsistent, protocols. Some migrants must answer their phones whenever they are contacted by SmartLINK. Other people will need to take photos showing their locations. She also said that others need to check in regularly with a SmartLINK and ICE officer. According to ICE, this costs ATD immigrants an average of $7.29 per daily.

“It has been described as like a constant harassment. People feel like they are criminals, they feel like they’ve been sentenced,” says Zota.

The ATD program or detention of immigrants is for civil purposes only. They are not part of the criminal justice process. After being found guilty, they do not serve a sentence. TRAC data indicates that almost 70% of immigrant currently held in ICE custody have not had a criminal record. Unknown is how many are also in ATD.

“[ATD] is not a substitute for detention, but allows ICE to exercise increased supervision over a portion of those who are not detained,” according to the ICE website. According to ICE SmartLINK also allows immigrants to be connected with community services, such as food banks.

For the immigrant advocates who have filed suit against ICE, the bigger issue is how immigrants’ data is being harvested and utilized by GEO Group, a for-profit company. “[GEO Group is] trying to figure out ways to pivot to continue to make profit off of the detention and deportation system,” says Gonzalez at Mijente. “So we’re gonna continue to be part of this lawsuit until we can get some basic information to understand how people’s most personal data, their biometric information, is being used by private companies and the government in this moment.”

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