Homeland Security funding package pours millions into migrant surveillance

Homeland Security funding package pours millions into migrant surveillance
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The House Appropriations Committee advanced a bill for Department of Homeland Security funding Tuesday that would allocate millions toward technologies for surveilling immigrants.

The proposal, passed through the Democratic-controlled committee on a 33-24 party-line vote, would allocate $475 million to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the agency’s Alternatives To Detention (ATD) program, well above what the Biden administration requested in its 2022 budget.

The program has drawn criticism for expanding the number of immigrants under ICE’s supervision, with detractors saying it has caused them physical and emotional harm.

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Individuals in the ATD are subject to unscheduled visits, tracked by ankle monitors and required to do check-ins with agents using voice or facial recognition systems, according to a recent report by the Just Futures Law Center and Mijente.

The Biden administration has touted ATD as an alternative to traditional detention, calling for the program to be expanded to cover roughly 140,000 individuals in the 2022 budget request. Roughly 90,000 individuals were in the program daily in fiscal year 2020. 

The DHS funding bill passed through committee also allocates $21 million for Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology, a planned database for storing biometric data including digital fingerprints, facial images and scans of irises. The Biden administration had requested $46 million for the program. 

Customs and Border Patrol would be given $8.75 million for small unmanned aircraft and $10.88 million for a “multirole” enforcement program through the funding package. Another $5 million would be allocated for a pilot to develop a common operating picture — essentially a display of all relevant information for the DHS — of the border.

The bill also allocates $45 million for the CBP to review technologies including geospatial search and rescue, remote sensing and super-light aircrafts.

Fifty million would be given for “non-intrusive inspection” systems, technology used to inspect any vehicles passing the border. Those systems may collect personal information including license plate numbers and photographs of vehicle interiors, according to a 2014 privacy impact assessment of the program.

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Democrats have supported border technology as an alternative to the physical infrastructure, like the wall, that the Trump administration pushed.

However, these kinds of “smart” border surveillance technologies in Tuesday’s bill have still been shown to lead migrants to take longer and more dangerous routes that can result in unnecessary deaths.

The next step for the sprawling funding bill is a full floor vote, where immigrants rights groups are hopeful that the new money for surveillance could be cut out.

“Disappointingly, today’s bill illustrates that the Democrats are willing to waste millions of dollars on enforcement in a desperate attempt to show that they are ‘tough’ on migrants,” Julie Mao, director of the Just Futures Law center, told The Hill. 

“They’ve chosen mass surveillance as the ill-conceived solution,” she continued. “But this money will only go to lining the pockets of military tech corporations at the expense of border communities and migrants who are already subjected to heavy surveillance and criminalization.”