Record number of immigrants funneled into alternative detention programs

Record number of immigrants funneled into alternative detention programs
© Associated Press/David J. Phillip

The number of migrants being monitored under a surveillance program launched as an alternative to traditional detention facilities has grown astronomically during the Biden administration. 

A record 136,026 immigrants are now being monitored under Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), up from 86,000 at the beginning of the year.

That growth has alarmed critics who say the program causes mental and physical harm to immigrants while doing little to divert them away from ICE's brick-and-mortar facilities.

ADVERTISEMENT

"Too many people in this administration, and in past administrations, have seen these types of electronic surveillance programs as relatively harmless, effective alternatives to immigration detention,” said Peter Markowitz, director of the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic at Cardozo Law School. “I think what we see is that they're neither harmless nor really alternatives to detention.”

ISAP, now in its fourth iteration, was launched in 2004 as a way to monitor immigrants in removal proceedings through a mix of home and field office visits, court tracking and electronic surveillance.

The program has become a favorite of the Biden administration, which has tried to position its immigration strategy as a humane alternative to former President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE's.

“It looks like the growth really started after Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips Five House members meet with Taiwanese president despite Chinese objections Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist MORE took office,” Austin Kocher, a research associate professor at Syracuse University who tracks immigration figures, told The Hill. “The administration is somewhat loath to have detention numbers go too high because they were low during the pandemic, for good reason.”

ISAP requires enrolled individuals to either wear ankle monitors, use a voice reporting system or download an app called SmartLINK. All three tools have been developed by BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of the private prison trust the GEO Group that has been awarded every ISAP contract since the program’s inception.

Immigrants spend an average of 615.1 days in the program, despite the recent influx in participants and a requirement that ICE review the terms of supervision for individuals every 90 days. And while it is billed as an alternative to detention, the number of immigrants in ICE custody has grown almost twofold to over 22,000 at the same time that ISAP has ballooned.

The use of GPS tracking ankle monitors has brought particular scrutiny for the detrimental effects it has on the health of migrants.

Ninety percent of participants in a recent survey conducted by Markowitz’s clinic of immigrants subjected to the monitors recounted experiencing physical harm from them, including aches, pains and cramps.

The poll, done in collaboration with Freedom for Immigrants and the Immigrant Defense Project, also found nearly 90 percent of respondents reporting that the shackles impacted their mental health negatively.

Twelve percent of respondents reported having suicidal ideations as a result of ankle monitors, which essentially track their location 24/7 and also allow them to be contacted by ICE officers at any time.

The data pulled from ankle monitors has allowed ICE not only to surveil the individuals in the program but also establish patterns of behavior for their communities that can then be used for enforcement operations.

The proportion of immigrants in ISAP subjected to ankle monitors has dropped significantly recently — 21.7 percent of participants had GPS monitors as of October, down from 46 percent in June 2019.

SmartLINK has become the tool of choice, with close to 60 percent of immigrants in ISAP using it as of last month.

The application is used for photo check-ins, where immigrants are required to take a picture of themselves at any given time that is then matched to one taken at enrollment using facial recognition software.

SmartLINK, which is used at prisons across the country, also has video-calling capability for check-ins and provides immigrants with appointment confirmations and court info.

The application has raised privacy and security concerns. ICE has said that it does not actively monitor users' locations and only collects GPS info at check-ins.

The facial recognition capability of the app poses problems as well, according to Human Rights Watch fellow Jordana Signer, because of consistent biases in the technology against Black and brown individuals, which could result in immigrants being unfairly punished.

After questioning by Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenLobbyists turn to infrastructure law's implementation Democrats plow ahead as Manchin yo-yos Overnight Energy & Environment — House passes giant climate, social policy bill MORE (D-Ore.), ICE said in 2018 that the SmartLINK tech has a “high level of accuracy” and that images collected through the app are not shared with any other agencies.

ADVERTISEMENT

While the voice verification monitoring technology has received less scrutiny than the shackles or SmartLINK, Markowitz argues that all three contribute to the “pervasive surveillance” of immigrant communities.

“To the extent that the shackling, and the phone app monitoring and voice recognition are all different kinds of facets of this larger surveillance program, I think you're going to find similar harms,” he told The Hill.

Immigrant rights groups have called for the entire ISAP program to be dismantled.

“We are steadfast in that we must end the criminalization of immigration,” Aly Panjwani, a Take Back Tech Fellow at Just Futures Law, told The Hill. “We can't replace these brick and mortar prisons with high-tech ones because it's just perpetuating the same carceral approach to immigration that the [Department of Homeland Security] has had since its founding.”

Public support for abolition from lawmakers has not yet materialized though. In the meantime, some alternatives to ensure immigrants in removal proceedings attend court hearings without requiring them to be detained have been proposed.

One is an Alternatives to Detention program that had a run of less than two years. The Family Case Management Program, which provided families with case managers and legal guidance, had a 99 percent effectiveness rate before being canceled by former President Trump in 2017.

ADVERTISEMENT

That rate means that nearly every person in the program appeared for all immigration appointments and court hearings. ISAP has the same rate, according to ICE.

Another alternative is providing immigrants with legal representation to help them navigate the often confusing removal process. Several studies have found doing so increases court hearing attendance to levels comparable to immigrants under ISAP.

"There are really good lessons in some of the community based alternatives to detention programs that have been run in the past,” Markowitz said. “Particularly those that have a legal services component as well have both the benefit of making sure that people are capable and aware enough to show up as they're required in immigration court but also support the ability of individuals and communities and families to survive and thrive.”