US authorities have widely expanded the use of a smartphone app during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure immigrants released from detention will attend deportation hearings, a requirement that advocates say violates their privacy and makes them feel that they are not free.
More than 125,000 people – many of whom stopped at the US-Mexico border – are now forced to install the app known as SmartLink on their phones, up from around 5,000 less than three years ago. It allows officials to easily verify them by asking immigrants to send a selfie or make or receive a phone call when asked.
Although the technology is less bulky than an ankle monitor, advocates say it’s unfair to tie immigrants to the app given that many have paid bail to get out of US detention centers while their belongings are going through the country’s late immigration courts. Immigration procedures are administrative, not criminal, and the overwhelming majority of people with cases in court are not detained.
Lawyers said they are concerned about how the US government might use data extracted from the app about immigrants’ whereabouts and contacts to round up and arrest others for immigration violations. .
“It’s kind of shocking how in just a few years it’s exploded so quickly and is now used so much everywhere,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign manager for Latino rights organization Mijente. “It makes it much easier for the government to track more people.”
Use of the app by Immigration and Customs Enforcement has skyrocketed during the pandemic, when many government services have moved online. It continued to grow as President Joe Biden called on the Justice Department to limit the use of private prisons. His administration has also expressed support for so-called alternatives to detention to ensure immigrants attend required appointments such as immigration court hearings.
Meanwhile, the number of cases in the US immigration court system soared to 1.6 million. Immigrants often have to wait years before being heard by a judge who will determine if they can legally stay in the country or if they should be deported.
Since the pandemic, US immigration authorities have reduced the number of immigrants in detention centers and touted detention alternatives such as enforcement.
The SmartLink app comes from BI Inc, a Boulder, Colorado-based subsidiary of private prison company The GEO Group. GEO, which runs migrant detention centers for ICE under other contracts, declined to comment on the application.
Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security, declined to answer questions about the application, but said in a statement that alternative detentions “are an effective method of tracking non-compliance. -nationals released from DHS custody who are awaiting immigration processing.”
In recent congressional testimony, agency officials wrote that the SmartLink app is also less expensive than detention: it costs about $4.36 a day to place a person in alternative detention and more than $140 a day to detain someone in a facility, according to agency budget estimates.
Advocates say immigrants who have spent months in detention centers and been released on bail are placed on the application when they go to an initial meeting with a deportation officer, just like parents and children seeking asylum at the southwestern border.
Initially, SmartLink was seen as a less intensive alternative to ankle monitors for immigrants who had been detained and released, but it is now widely used on immigrants with no criminal history and who have not been detained at all, Julie said. Mao, deputy director of the immigrant rights group Just Futures. Previously, immigrants often only attended periodic checks at agency offices.
“We are very concerned that this is going to be used as an excessive standard for everyone in the immigration system,” Mao said.
While most people attend their immigration court hearings, some skip. In these cases, immigration judges issue deportation orders in the immigrants’ absence, and deportation officers are responsible for trying to find them and return them to their country. In fiscal year 2018, about a quarter of immigration judge decisions were deportation orders for people who missed court, according to court data.
Advocates questioned whether surveillance systems matter in these cases, noting that someone who wants to avoid court will stop checking with eviction officers, throw away their phone, and move on, whether on SmartLink or not.
They said they worried deportation officers could track immigrants through SmartLink more than they knew, much like business apps mine location data on people’s phones.
In the criminal justice system, law enforcement agencies use similar apps for defendants awaiting trial or serving time. Robert Magaletta, managing director of Louisiana-based Shadowtrack Technologies, said the technology does not permanently track defendants but records their location during check-ins, and the company offers a separate full-time tracking service to law enforcement agencies. order using tamper-evident watches.
In a 2019 Congressional Research Service report, ICE said the app does not continuously monitor immigrants. But advocates said even quick snapshots of people’s locations during check-in could be used to track down friends and colleagues who lack the proper immigration clearance. They noted that immigration investigators extracted GPS data from ankle monitors of workers at the Mississippi poultry plant to help build a case for a major workplace raid.
For immigrants released from detention with ankle monitors that irritate the skin and sometimes beep loudly, the app is an improvement, said Los Angeles immigration attorney Mackenzie Mackins. It’s less painful and more discreet, she said, adding that ankle monitors made her clients feel like they were viewed by others as criminals.
But SmartLink can be stressful for immigrants to the United States fleeing persecution at home, and for those concerned that a technology glitch could lead to a missed check-in.
Roseanne Flores, a paralegal at Hilf and Hilf in Troy, Michigan, said she recently fielded panicked calls from clients because the app wasn’t working. They ended up having to appear in person at the offices of the immigration officers.
“I see the agony it causes customers,” Flores said. “My heart is with them.”
Taxine reported from Orange County, California. Biraben reported from Los Angeles, California.