‘Constantly afraid’: immigrants on life under the US government’s eye
Macarena had just put on a pair of skinny jeans when her phone rang.
On the other end of the line was an employee from BI Inc, the private contractor tracking Macarena’s whereabouts on behalf of US immigration authorities. The employee had received an alert that the ankle monitor Macarena was wearing had been tampered with, Macarena recalled them saying. They asked if she was trying to take it off.
Macarena was scared and confused. She was trying to make it out of the house with her children, she told the employee, explaining that the tight jeans must have moved the bulky device.
She’d have to come to the local BI office to prove it, the employee responded.
It was the spring of 2021 and Macarena, whose name has been changed to avoid compromising her immigration case, was two months into the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (Isap).
The US government program was launched in 2004 as a “humane” alternative to detention for immigrants waiting for their cases to be heard in court, a surveillance system that was supposed to keep track of people in the program while helping them access social services.
Selected by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) officers, immigrants in the program are electronically surveilled through an ankle monitor, voice recognition or the company’s proprietary tracking app until their court date, and meet regularly with a case manager. Holding an exclusive, $2.2bn five-year contract to run Isap for Ice is BI, a company that got its start in monitoring cattle and is owned by one of the country’s largest private prison corporations, the Geo Group.
While Isap has allowed some immigrants to go home rather than remain in immigration jail, the program is hampered by fundamental flaws, according to Isap participants, their lawyers and sponsors, as well as 10 BI employees.
They say BI’s technology is substandard, with ankle monitors causing bruising, overheating and at times sending out electroshocks and BI’s proprietary app frequently malfunctioning. Isap’s structure is as flawed as the tools it relies on, they argue, with arbitrary requirements and opaque decision-making processes inhibiting the ultimate goal of the program: transitioning out of it.
BI referred the Guardian to Ice for all questions concerning its work on Isap.
Nicole Peckumn, assistant director of Ice’s office of public affairs, said on Monday that programs like Isap “are an effective method of tracking non-citizens released from DHS custody who are awaiting their immigration proceedings”.
The agency said Isap was effective at increasing court appearance rates among immigrants facing removal proceedings. BI had received an exceptional rating for its management of Isap at the time of its last contractor assessment, at the end of January, the agency added. Ice also said there was no proof the ankle monitor caused any physical harm.
The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
‘My skin turned red and started bleeding’
Macarena followed her mother to the US from her native Honduras nearly 17 years ago, when she was just 16. She settled in Virginia, got married and had two kids. In 2020, police were called to her home during a family conflict. Revealed to be undocumented, she was arrested and sent to an immigration detention center, leaving behind her husband, eight-month-old son and seven-year-old daughter.
“Before I was sent to detention, I was paying taxes, we were working. I didn’t want to lose my daughter, my husband, my baby boy ... I lived in this country for almost 18 years,” she said.
Four months after her arrest, Macarena was presented with a choice: remain detained until her court date or leave but wear an ankle monitor for a month. Desperate to reunite with her family, she chose the latter.
Soon one month turned into 10, with the impact of the monitor extending far beyond what she had imagined. The belt on the bulky black monitor sat tightly above her ankle and it was heavy, she said, making it difficult to walk. Sometimes the device would overheat, burning the skin underneath.
“I put a big Band-Aid or a sock between the belt and my skin because it was so hot,” she recalled. “My skin turned red and started bleeding because it was tight and hot at the same time.”
Ice said BI had conducted extensive testing of its products and had not reported any instances or evidence that the ankle monitors produced enough heat or power to overheat or shock someone. Ice did not respond to questions about whether the agency had independently verified the results of these tests.
BI employees repeatedly accused Macarena of trying to tamper with the monitor, she said, including the time she had been struggling to put on her jeans. Once she was accused of disconnecting the ankle monitor when she was lying on her couch, sick. “I’m here on my sofa with fever and coughing. I think I have Covid,” she remembered telling the employee. “How am I gonna remove this?”
Over time, Macarena said, she grew increasingly distraught. She tried to get a job cleaning houses or babysitting, but she said people didn’t trust her in their home when they saw her ankle monitor. She saw mothers pull their kids away from her in the park. She’d notice people pointing and staring at the device while she was out with her children, and she worried her daughter would hear people call her a criminal.
The burden of ‘over-policing’
Isap participants around the country told similar stories to their lawyers and their sponsors, people who sign affidavits of support to help with the immigration process.
Rosalia and Sarah, whose names were also changed to avoid compromising their cases, were detained when they sought asylum in the US in 2018, fleeing anti-trans persecution in Honduras and El Salvador. They were enrolled in Isap after being detained and were fitted with ankle monitors. With that came other requirements: a BI worker would visit them every Friday – though they never were told what time – and their movements were restricted to the state their sponsor lived in. Once a week, they visited the BI office about 1.5 hours away.
Rosalia and Sarah’s sponsor, whose name is being withheld to avoid jeopardizing the women’s cases, described their experience in the program as dehumanizing and traumatizing. Once, Rosalia’s monitor had gotten so hot she had to wrap it with a towel to keep it from burning her leg, the sponsor said. Another time, Sarah had missed a home visit because she had gone to the store before a BI worker was scheduled to arrive. He had arrived 30 minutes early and Sarah had been accused of working illegally, the sponsor said. Rosalia’s case manager was cruel and always treated her with suspicion, the sponsor alleged.
“They were really trying to catch them breaking the law,” the sponsor said. Nearly all asylum seekers show up for their court dates, they added, citing a study from the non-profit Vera Institute of Justice. “They really want to go through the legal process. So all of this over-policing and inviting the carceral system into people’s homes is not necessary.”
Ice said not all people in Isap shared the same circumstances as the people evaluated in the Vera Institute study and that electronic monitoring technology contributed to the program’s success.
Ice said BI workers were trained to be objective and not to assume that a person in the program is trying to abscond, work illegally or intentionally violate their supervision regimen.
Several former employees the Guardian spoke to said this had not been their experience and that while they had been taught that not everyone in the program had a criminal background, their training had included how to defend themselves against potential attacks.
Immigrants speaking to a group of non-profits including Casa de Paz and the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition in Boulder, where BI is headquartered, said they too felt their case workers appeared intent on proving they were trying to abscond.
“My Isap officer treats me like I am a criminal,” one immigrant told the non-profits, according to their report. “He yells at me. I feel constantly afraid that I may be doing something wrong.”
Another missed a home visit and was told they’d be arrested if they didn’t travel an hour and a half to the BI office to check in in person. “I had to pay someone $200 to take me,” they told the non-profits. “I have no income. I am an asylum seeker and I do not have work authorization yet.”
Frequently, the immigrants reported, it was issues with BI’s own technology that made it impossible to meet requirements.
Instead of wearing an ankle monitor, some in Isap are required to upload a location-tagged selfie to BI’s proprietary app, SmartLink, once a week. The company matches that image against the picture the person took when they were first enrolled. But Google Play and App Store reviews of the app listed a wide variety of issues, including people missing their check-ins because their pictures wouldn’t go through, the facial recognition technology had failed to recognize them, or the notifications hadn’t worked. “Couldn’t send a picture …” one review read. “Got a call and got told to delete and reinstall, I deleted the app and now I can’t install it back. They blamed us for not sending pictures. Ridiculous!”
Alyssa Kane, the managing attorney at Aldea People’s Justice Center, an immigrant rights organization in Pennsylvania, said one woman represented by her organization couldn’t get SmartLink to work on her Cricket Wireless phone. When the woman had called BI to explain, employees had accused her of trying to abscond, Kane said. The woman had legal status and had been in the country for at least 15 years before she was sentenced to probation for pleading guilty to receipt of stolen goods, Kane added. But her technical difficulties were so bad that she was listed as not enrolled in the program and was given fugitive status.
“All of this is for a 55-year-old woman who technically still has legal, permanent residency and an application pending with the immigration court and has been in and out of the hospital on multiple occasions for serious health issues,” Kane said.
Making matters worse are the program’s contradictory requirements and its opaque decision-making processes, immigrants and advocates say. Requirements to transition from an ankle monitor to app check-ins, for example, vary office-to-office, but could include participants paying for a work permit if they’re eligible and living in one place for at least 90 days. But participants report that ankle monitors – which are clearly visible and often loudly announce “batería baja” when they run out of battery – make it hard to hold a job and that few employers offer flexibility to go home for case manager check-ins. With no income, securing a place to live for 90 days or hiring an attorney is difficult. Participants have also reported needing to show BI a passport to make the transition, even though Ice had confiscated the document when they were detained.
It was unclear to participants and advocates how major decisions, such as immigrants’ transition from one level of surveillance to another, were made. Immigrants typically wear an ankle monitor for a minimum of six months, when some are expected to receive work authorization. But many end up wearing it for an average of one to three years. BI case workers can recommend participants’ “de-escalation”, but it’s up to Ice to approve the request. Two former BI case managers said Ice had only approved about about 20% of those they recommended for de-escalation and had offered few explanations for its decisions.
Both Rosalia and Sarah were given ankle monitors, but only one had it removed after receiving a work permit. The other had to keep wearing it for several more weeks. They weren’t given any reason for the discrepancy.
Former BI employees said it was these inconsistencies that drove people away before their court dates. “Some people never saw a light at the end of the tunnel and that’s why they abscond,” said Olivia Scott, a former BI case manager in Indiana. “There was no set protocol. So if you had a GPS unit on for three years, you’ve done everything, you have your work permit. What else is it that you need to do to get this unit off?”
Ice confirmed these decisions were made on a case-by-case basis and took into account criteria including immigration status, criminal history, compliance history, community or family ties, caregiver or provider concerns, and other humanitarian or medical conditions.
Having a lawyer appeared to help expedite the process to remove the device, some former employees and activists said.
However, Ice prohibits attorneys from attending meetings between their clients and BI case managers, according to the 2020 Isap contract. Kane and Karen Hoffman, an attorney, said that made it difficult to ensure their clients had all the information they needed. Several of Hoffman’s clients had been given wrong court dates, while one had erroneously been told they faced a final order of deportation, she said.
At least 182,607 people were enrolled in Isap as of January, according to Ice data, making it the largest supervision program of any US law enforcement agency. More than 60,000 people have entered the program in the last year, according to Ice. The Biden administration is expanding the program to include new levels of supervision, such as strict curfews.
After wearing an ankle monitor for 10 months, Macarena had the device removed in the winter. Instead of being tracked through the monitor, she’s now sent a text once a week, after which she has to upload a location-tagged selfie to the SmartLink app. If something happens to her phone, she has to show up to the office to explain.
Macarena’s ecstatic about the change. But experts worry about the long-term privacy ramifications of her surveillance regime.
Macarena said she was told by BI employees the app is “always running” and that she always has to have the GPS on or else she could be put back on the ankle monitor. There’s little transparency into what information BI is collecting through SmartLink and even fewer regulations limiting what data it can collect. Ice said the app only tracked locations during check-ins but did not respond to questions about why Macarena and others in the program were told it was always tracking them.
Privacy experts and immigration advocates worry the company could share or sell the information, and that the data could be used against immigrants in other law enforcement contexts even once they gain legal status.
“The way the immigration system operates is to make us believe that we have no other recourse,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, an organizer with the immigrant rights group Latino Advocacy. “When people are out of detention, they think they’re on the other side of it, but whatever company has a contract with Ice, we have to be afraid of.”
Macarena is too relieved to have the monitor off to be worried.
“I’m going to do whatever they’re asking me to do to not be in trouble and keep close to my family,” Macarena said.