Electronic monitoring of immigrants surges in Atlanta

Ankle monitors, phone apps increasingly replace detention for immigrants awaiting court hearings
File photo: The federal government's growing embrace of tracking technologies for immigrants has followed a sharp uptick in the number of unauthorized migrants crossing the southwest border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

File photo: The federal government's growing embrace of tracking technologies for immigrants has followed a sharp uptick in the number of unauthorized migrants crossing the southwest border. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

For Li Ann ‘Estrella’ Sánchez, an immigrant from Mexico, being granted asylum in 2018 meant she could legally stay and live in Atlanta. It also meant the irritation on the skin around her ankle could heal.

For a nearly six-year stretch while her case was being heard, Sánchez had to wear an ankle monitor so that immigration authorities could track her whereabouts and ensure she showed up to court dates.

“I felt like I was a prisoner in my own home,” Sánchez said.

It’s a feeling more and more people could become familiar with, as the number of immigrants under electronic surveillance has surged since President Joe Biden took office about 14 months ago, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a nonpartisan research organization at Syracuse University.

As of March 26, there were 4,736 individuals electronically monitored within the Atlanta ICE office’s area of responsibility, which covers Georgia as well as North and South Carolina. On January 22, 2021, shortly after Biden’s inauguration, that figure was 2,776, meaning the program has grown by roughly 70 percent.

The administration’s growing embrace of tracking technologies has followed a sharp uptick in the number of unauthorized migrants crossing the southwest border. Biden has described the program as a more humane alternative to detention, as well as an effective tool to ensure migrants comply with court appearances and potential deportation orders, preventing them from simply disappearing into the country.

Alternatives to detention enable “migrants to live in dignity and safety while awaiting their court hearings,” his immigration platform reads. They’re “the best way to ensure that they attend all required immigration appointments.”

Georgia remains one of the states with the largest population of jailed immigrants, with over 1,800 individuals in ICE detention as of March 14, according to TRAC. Just three states outpace Georgia in terms of immigrant detention.

Pros and cons

The alternatives to detention or ATD program, meant to keep track of immigrants with cases pending before immigration court, relies on three different tools: GPS-fitted ankle monitors, a smartphone application with facial recognition technology and reporting in via phone calls, along with frequent meetings with case managers. Operating the program on ICE’s behalf is BI Inc, a one-time cattle-monitoring business and current subsidiary of the private prison company the GEO Group. GEO runs an immigration jail in South Georgia that could soon become one of the country’s largest.

The wider use of monitoring technologies in Georgia is part of a national trend: On March 26, the latest date for which data is available, the number of surveilled immigrants across the country exceeded the 200,000 benchmark for the first time in history, according to TRAC. That is more than double the number of surveilled immigrants in the country a year ago.

To cover the cost of ICE’s ATD program, Congress recently gave the agency $440 million. The previous fiscal year, that budget didn’t exceed $150 million.

Charles Kuck, an Atlanta-area immigration attorney, says that, for most people, “if you have to be under ICE supervision, it’s far better to have an ankle bracelet than be in jail.”

Alternatives to detention, he added, also represent a smaller financial burden on the federal government. According to ICE budget estimates, it costs roughly $4.36 per day to place a person on a detention alternative, and more than $140 per day to detain someone in a facility.

Immigrant rights advocates aren’t convinced that the benefits of monitoring technologies outweigh what they see as drawbacks. They point out the social stigma and stress that come with being surveilled, conditions that can make it difficult to lead a normal life. They also cite data that shows most non-detained immigrants tend to reliably appear for immigration court hearings. A 2020 study from the non-profit Vera Institute of Justice put that number at close to 90%. In most cases, hearings are administrative, not criminal, and will determine if the immigrant is allowed to remain in the country.

“I certainly think [monitoring immigrants] is unnecessary,” said Matt Boles, a pro-bono lawyer with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI). “I don’t think you need to treat immigrants as criminals.”

Privacy concerns

Driving the recent surge in immigrant monitoring is BI Inc’s smartphone app, called SmartLink, which prompts users to upload a location-tagged selfie at certain times throughout the week. SmartLink currently accounts for roughly 70% of people enrolled in alternative to detention programs in the Atlanta region.

While the app is more discreet than an ankle monitor, immigrant advocates say there is little transparency about the kind – and the amount – of data it collects on immigrants.

“I think that we don’t have a full understanding of how this technology works, and how [using the app] could be a violation of privacy,” said Amilcar Valencia, executive director of El Refugio, a South Georgia-based nonprofit. “People should be able to live their lives without being monitored all the time.”

Neither ICE nor BI Inc responded to questions from the AJC about SmartLink data collection.

In a statement, Azadeh Shahshahani, legal director of Project South, an Atlanta-based organization that advocates for detained immigrants said that “There are serious privacy concerns about the app, especially in light of how widely it is now being used.” She added: “We also have concerns about how the government may use the data pulled from the app on immigrants’ location and contacts to round up and arrest other community members on immigration violations.”

In 2019, ICE used data gleaned from ankle monitors to target seven food processing plants where many undocumented immigrants worked, according to unsealed search warrants. Nearly 700 people were arrested.

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.