The Biden administration is set to create an intelligence cell run by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as part of plans to expand biometric data collection from migrants. The new US immigration intelligence-gathering cell will also monitor misleading information posted on social media that could trigger mass migrant movements.
The new cell is expected to be operational by the end of October and will provide indications and warnings of possible mass migrant surges by gathering intelligence from DHS officials based in Central and South America.
It’s also expected that the new cell will look to establish aerial surveillance of trucks and migrant camps massing on borders and increase communication with the US intelligence community and law enforcement agencies in other countries, according to a planning document.
The DHS said that with the intelligence gathered on mass US immigration movements, they will be able to ‘allocate resources to areas of the border where surges are expected’. Plus, the information will help to counter messages spread by cartels and those on social media who falsely claim that the US will allow all migrants arriving at the southern border to stay.
A DHS official said: “The US strategy is to counter false messages before migrants embark on dangerous journeys. Once they’re in Mexico, it’s too late.”
“The collection and dissemination of intelligence about migration movements used to fall to DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis. However, the office stopped regularly creating reports under the Trump administration,” said two former DHS officials.
The two officials, who worked under the Trump administration, went on to say that the office was largely weakened under the previous administration but that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) did much of their intelligence-gathering.
Office of Intelligence and Analysis rebuild
According to the two former DHS officials, the Biden administration has had to rebuild the Office of Intelligence and Analysis in order to give all parts of the DHS the same reliable information about migrant groups that might be heading for the US border in real-time.
One of the officials, appointed by Joe Biden on the condition of anonymity, said: “The Trump administration’s almost singular focus on building a border wall as the solution to stopping illegal migration and illegal drugs from coming into the country actually resulted in the opposite. It allowed key intelligence and operational capabilities to atrophy.”
Senior officials at ICE, CBP, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis and the Coast Guard, reportedly met recently to finalize plans for an intelligence-gathering cell.
In the short term, each agency will provide personnel for the cell, which will operate out of Washington. Intelligence will be gathered on potential waves of immigrants who might imminently be making their way to the US.
Part of the cell’s operation will include building and monitoring algorithms that can track social media talk about migration movements. Most immigrants tend to communicate by Facebook and WhatsApp to organize migrant caravans.
The cell will most likely keep tabs on a group of more than 20,000 Haitian migrants who are currently gathered in Northern Colombia and Panama, who may decide to head for the US.
According to other documents, seen by NBC News, the long-term plan for the cell is to collect more biometric data about migrants as they cross the border.
It’s understood that the Office of Intelligence and Analysis will also work with the governments of Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras and Mexico to enter into agreements that would permit intelligence-gathering, surveillance and recognizance, which would greatly increase the amount of human and signals intelligence that DHS gathers in each region.
DHS officials said: “The goal is to institutionalize the intelligence-gathering systems so future administrations cannot dismantle them.”
Speaking to NBC News, a DHS spokesperson said: “DHS recently developed a new analytic effort that combines law enforcement and intelligence resources to improve our ability to operationally prepare for large numbers of migrants that may arrive along the southwest border.”
“This critical initiative — which is led by the Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the United States Coast Guard — will strengthen existing efforts such as Operational Sentinel that counter transnational criminal organizations, including those that smuggle illicit narcotics and migrants across the border,” the spokesperson added.
Step in the wrong direction
However, US immigration advocates have blasted plans for an immigrant intelligence-gathering cell. Lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Lee Gelernt, said: “Increasing surveillance of immigrants is a step in the wrong direction.”
“Rather than creating a surveillance system to deter migrants seeking protection, the administration ought to focus on complying with its legal and moral obligation to provide desperate asylum-seekers with a hearing,” he added.
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