Federal government’s use of immigrant tracking technology sparks lawsuit

MAccording to federal data released on April 14, more than 216,000 people with cases pending in US immigration courts have been placed in a federal government tracking program. 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 curb addiction. government-funded detention centers.

While immigrant advocates have long called on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to reduce or end the use of immigration detention centers, they say the ATD program raises a new series concerns about the privacy and civil rights of immigrants. 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 is collected on individuals in the ATD program, and how this data is used, either by the government or by the for-profit entrepreneurs who exploit the technology.

“Police and law enforcement in immigrant communities has evolved in recent years to become increasingly reliant on technology and data companies,” says Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign manager at Mijente. . “ICE will call it an ‘alternative to detention’ even though we know it’s really kind of an extension of the detention system.”

In the days after Biden took office, 86,860 people were monitored through ATD. On April 9, that number was 216,450. About 75% of people enrolled in the program are supervised through an app called SmartLINK, which uses facial and voice recognition and GPS tracking. SmartLINK was developed by BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of GEO Group, the largest private prison corporation in the United States. ICE started using SmartLINK in 2018, during the Trump administration. The Biden administration has dramatically increased usage of the app, according to an analysis of the data by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research organization at Syracuse University.

While the number of immigrants monitored under the ATD has increased, the number in ICE detention centers has decreased. But it’s not a direct correlation, says Austin Kocher, assistant professor and researcher at TRAC. The number of immigrants in ATD has increased, while the number of people in immigration detention centers has fluctuated, he says. “[ATD] is more a mechanism of [ICE] to expand their ability to monitor immigrants who are in the country,” says Kocher. “So we don’t necessarily expect the number of detentions to go down just because the alternatives to detention are increasing.” Since the start of the Biden administration, the number of immigrants in ICE detention centers has fluctuated between a high of 27,217 and a low of 13,258. It is currently over 18,000.

An ICE spokesperson would not comment on the new litigation and issued a statement saying a “no comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation to any allegation.” The spokesperson added that the agency is committed to protecting the privacy rights and civil rights and liberties of individuals participating in the ATD program. GEO Group declined to comment on the case regarding ATD or SmartLINK and referred TIME to ICE.

What is ICE’s Alternative to Detention Program?

The record number of people currently enrolled in the ATD represents only a relatively small portion of the millions of immigrants who are not detained by ICE. As of August 2020, more than 3.3 million people were on ICE’s non-detained roll. This number includes asylum seekers, those who have received a deportation order and those who have a case pending in US immigration court.

Yet the rapid expansion of the ATD program is causing immigrant communities and advocates to sound the alarm. The program allows the government to track immigrants with a variety of different technologies, including ankle monitors with GPS tracking, “telephone reports” or using the SmartLINK app, which is either installed on a personal smartphone or installed on a locked device. ICE first used SmartLINK in 2004 to track a small subset of undocumented immigrants who were not in detention.

Sejal Zota, co-founder and legal director of Just Futures Law, calls the program a “digital prison”. She says immigrants monitored under the ATD are asked to follow different and sometimes inconsistent protocols. Some immigrants have to answer their phone every time they receive a call on the SmartLINK app. Others must send photos of themselves indicating their location. And others need to check in periodically with a SmartLINK agent and an ICE agent, she says. This costs ATD immigrants an average of $7.29 a day, according to ICE.

“It was described as constant harassment. People feel like criminals, they feel like they’ve been convicted,” Zota says.

Immigrants who are in detention or in the ATD program are awaiting civil proceedings; they are not in the criminal justice system. They do not serve time after being convicted of a crime. According to TRAC data, almost 70% of immigrants currently detained by ICE do not have a criminal record. It is not known how many people in ATD do not have a criminal record either.

“[ATD] does not replace detention, but allows ICE to exercise increased surveillance over a portion of those who are not detained,” according to the ICE website. SmartLINK can also connect immigrants with community services like food banks, according to ICE.

For immigrant advocates who have sued ICE, the biggest issue is how immigrant data is collected and used by the for-profit GEO Group. “[GEO Group is] trying to find ways to pivot to continue to benefit from the detention and deportation system,” Gonzalez tells Mijente. “So we’re going to 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 right now. .”

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