Asylum-seekers call Biden’s Alternatives to Detention program a ‘digital prison’

“From that moment, I felt humiliated,” M.O. said in written testimony. “I felt trampled—I never imagined that they would treat us that way … My foot and ankle hurt a lot, even when I slept. When I told them it was painful, they told me I had to suck it up or not walk a lot. My skin started to peel.”

M.O.’s and D.F.’s experiences are part of a new report co-published last week by over a dozen immigrant justice groups—including Mijente, Freedom for Immigrants, and Just Futures Law—documenting the Biden administration’s rapid expansion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s “Alternatives to Detention” program, also known as the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, or ISAP, and the harmful impacts digital surveillance has on the mental health and livelihoods of immigrants and asylum-seekers. For years, immigrant justice advocates have fought against the U.S. government’s use of surveillance technology for immigration enforcement, which they say is not an alternative to detention, but rather an extension—a digital prison. As of April, over 227,000 people were enrolled in ISAP—more than double the number when President Biden took office. His administration has requested $527 million in funding for fiscal year 2023 to sustain and grow the program—an $87 million increase from this year’s budget.

There’s also been mounting concerns from advocates over privacy violations, the mass collection of personal data, and what ICE and corporations are doing with that information. In a statement to Prism, ICE said the agency is “committed to protecting privacy rights, and civil rights and liberties of all participants within the Alternatives to Detention Program.”

M.O. got her ankle monitor removed when the family moved to Chicago after four months of living in Maryland. D.F. said he had his for a year, and described feeling immense anguish. He said the ankle monitor hurt his skin and that it was a reminder that ICE knew where he was at all times, could easily take him away from his family, and deport him back to the horrors he’d fled in Honduras. He said the device made many employers uncomfortable, and it was difficult to find or sustain a job. D.F. also had to physically check in with ICE at least once every two weeks—a process that sometimes took several hours and disrupted his ability to work.

On one occasion, D.F. said three different officers called him at 3 AM, screaming at him and asking where he was, and accusing him of trying to escape.

“That kills you psychologically … It hurt to sleep, to take a bath, and to walk,” he said in the report.

After the ankle monitor was taken off, ICE forced D.F. to download SmartLink, a mobile phone app that uses facial recognition software, to track his location 24 hours a day. D.F. said in the report he has to send photos of himself once a week and has to frequently check in with ICE through the app, which also captures people’s GPS location.

When the “Alternatives to Detention” program began in 2004, the Homeland Security Department entered into a contract with B.I. Incorporated, a subsidiary of the private prison corporation GEO Group—which runs over 100 state and federal prisons, ICE detention centers, and other facilities around the country. B.I., previously a cattle-tracking firm, has since been the only contractor for ISAP, providing ICE with ankle monitor bracelets, voice verification technology, facial recognition through SmartLink, and a “system of office check-ins, home visits, travel restrictions, and house arrest to detain immigrants in digital prisons,” the report said. ICE’s most recent contract with B.I. was signed in 2020, granting the corporation $2.2 billion over a period of five years.

“The migration [and] refugee system that the U.S. has built is a punitive system,” said Julie Mao, the deputy director at Just Futures Law. “[It] is oriented [toward] spending billions of dollars funding detention and surveillance programs that are about oppressing and controlling immigrant populations. ISAP is a coerced program in which ICE is forcing the individual to choose between a digital prison or a physical one … The real and only alternative to detention is freedom.”

Michael Bongani Langa, an immigrant from South Africa, compared his experience with the SmartLink app to apartheid.

“Apartheid and detention without trial was an order in South Africa,” he said in the report. “Now immigration and detention plus deportation is the order of the day in America. Being torn away from your family because of this inhumane treatment is a violation of human rights.”

Through campaigns like Mijente’s No Tech for ICE, advocates are also calling out other corporations like Amazon, which profits from providing surveillance technology to immigration agencies and police departments through the platform Amazon Web Services. Last week, advocates protested at the AWS summit in Washington, D.C., demanding the company end its agreement to host DHS’s Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART) biometric database once it launches. Meanwhile, media giant Thomas Reuters is currently reevaluating its sale of immigrants’ personal data to ICE through its “investigative software” databases, although it does not intend to sever ties with government agencies that search those databases.

Today, D.F. is still forced to use the SmartLink mobile app. He and M.O. had another child after they moved to Chicago, where they also have loved ones. As the family tries to have a peaceful life, D.F.’s, M.O.’s and their oldest daughter’s asylum cases are still pending.

“You live in fear there, in your home country, and you also live in fear here, too,” he said. “It is extremely difficult.”

María Inés Taracena is a contributing writer covering workers’ rights at Prism. Originally from Guatemala, she’s currently a news producer at Democracy Now! in New York City focusing on Central America and asylum-seekers, among other stories. Follow her on Twitter @m_ines_taracena.

Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. Our in-depth and thought-provoking journalism reflects the lived experiences of people most impacted by injustice. We tell stories from the ground up to disrupt harmful narratives, and to inform movements for justice. Sign up for our newsletter to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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