End US immigration surveillance say human rights groups

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Humans rights groups are urging the Biden administration and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to end the digital surveillance of immigrants. According to a new report, ICE monitors nearly 100,000 migrants using ‘questionable tactics’ that do more harm than good and prevent progress in enabling immigrants to thrive in their communities.


The report, compiled by the Latino organizing group Mijente and immigration legal rights group Just Futures Law, highlights how ICE uses apps, GPS-tracking ankle monitors and facial recognition technology to monitor people. The report argues that such tactics serve only to ‘further criminalize immigrants’ and affects their social and economic wellbeing.

The Biden administration is facing increased pressure to reverse many Trump-era US immigration policies and reduce the number of people held in US immigration detention. One of the solutions has been to fund digital measures that allow immigrants to be tracked rather than imprisoning them.


Digital alternatives program

In recent years, a US ‘digital alternative program’ has been steadily growing. Recent government figures show that funding for digital methods of tracking immigrants has risen from $28 million in 2006 to $440 million in 2021.

It’s understood that digital solutions currently track 96,574 individuals. However, the Biden administration’s budget request for 2022 is seeking to increase the number by approximately 45,000 to 140,000.

A statement released by Biden administration officials said: “These alternatives support migrants as they navigate their legal obligations and are meant to be less-harmful alternatives to physical detention.”

However, Julie Mao of Just Futures Law argued that the alternatives to physical detention are no less harmful. She said: “There are so many ways ankle shackles cause physical and emotional harm for folks.”

“It’s deeply stigmatizing to have the ankle monitor, it can create sores, and it must be charged often. Having that on you 24/7 creates a huge mental strain on people,” she added.


Unscheduled home and office visits

As well as having to wear ankle monitors, immigrants are reportedly being forced to consent to unscheduled home and office visits, check in with US immigration officials via a smartphone app or over the phone, or a combination of all three as part of the digital alternative program.

One such app in question, SmartLINK – as identified in a report published by The Guardian – reportedly requires immigrants to check in by uploading a selfie for facial recognition while confirming their location.

The report compiled by the human rights’ groups states that the app ‘raises a number of privacy and surveillance concerns’ because it’s capable of monitoring user location in real time.

“Despite being put forward as an alternative, digital surveillance can, in many cases, ultimately lead to real-life detention, due to minor mistakes made in the app or technology issues with an immigrant’s required check-in,” the report said.


ICE arrests

It’s also been claimed that in some cases ICE has used the information from alternatives to detention to track down immigrants for arrest. In 2019, historical data from ankle bracelets was used to raid Koch Foods in Mississippi, which led to the arrest of more than 600 people.

“Policymakers and advocates should reject calls to invest in carceral alternatives to detention programs and focus on solutions that put an end to all forms of immigrant surveillance and detention,” the report said.


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