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ICE Gets Sued for Privacy Concerns Over Immigrant Tracking

U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement has been using an app called SmartLINK to monitor immigrants. The app was touted as an alternative to detention, but civil rights groups believe the app violates privacy.

ICE building
(TNS) — A tracking app used by U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement that was initially lauded as an alternative to detention has raised concerns about immigrants' privacy and civil rights.

ICE began using the SmartLINK app in 2018, during the Donald Trump administration, but recently released data shows the number of asylum seekers being monitored by the app has nearly tripled since Joe Biden took office. The New Orleans field office is ranked No. 3 out of the 24 field offices in the number of asylum seekers being monitored by the technology.

On April 14, three immigrant advocacy groups — Mijente, Just Futures Law and Community Justice Exchange — filed a lawsuit against ICE, calling on the agency to provide information showing what data is being collected in the program, and how that data is used, either by the government or law enforcement agencies' contractors.

The privacy concerns stem from a reported lack of transparency in how immigrants' data are stored by BI Inc., the private company that was granted $2.2 billion to run alternative-to-detention programs.

"There isn't a lot of clarity about the limitations on how the data collected can be used and what the regulations are. We want transparency to understand what's happening," said Jacinta Gonzalez, campaign director of No Tech for ICE with Mijente, a Latinx rights organization that support asylum seekers.

"The program asks migrants to send pictures of their location. They are under constant surveillance 24/7, seven days a week."

The program requires immigrants to carry a smart phone or other device with the SmartLINK app and to use the app to check in using voice messages and facial recognition. As of March 26, it was being used by 90.43% of all the immigrants who were placed by ICE NOLA in the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, according to the data, largely replacing GPS ankle monitors and telephonic reporting system.

A total of 3,398 asylum seekers were included in ISAP programs in Louisiana, according to ICE. Of those, 3,073 are using SmartLINK. Only Philadelphia and New York ICE field offices relied on the smartphone app more than New Orleans.

Pro-migrant advocacy groups told The Acadiana Advocate that asylum seekers who are being tracked through SmartLINK were told by BI personnel to always keep their phone on, even when deportation agents are not conducting check-ins.

In accordance with DHS policy, a Privacy Threshold Analysis was conducted and approved by the DHS Privacy Office, Oct. 27, 2021, ICE noted.

But a recent investigation by The Guardian revealed that ICE and BI have issued conflicting information about how often the app tracks the location of the people it surveils, that BI's app collected a broad swath of information on its users, and that BI encouraged its government clients to share crime data with each other.

In February, 25 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas demanding urgent changes to the ISAP program, and sharing their concerns about SmartLINK.

"This technology has the capability of surveilling not only the subject but also bystanders — including U.S. citizens and individuals with legal status — raising further civil rights concerns and creating a potential for unwarranted surveillance of U.S. residents without just cause, their knowledge or their consent," the lawmakers wrote in the letter dated Feb. 23.

An ICE spokesperson didn't respond to questions regarding why NOLA ICE is relying on SmartLINK more than other field offices across the country. But the agency told The Advocate that alternative-to-detention programs effectively increase court appearance rates by asylum-seekers, and that they are part of the effort to reduce the number of immigrants detained in private facilities.

"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Alternative to Detention (ATD) program, which began in 2004, uses technology and case management to ensure noncitizen compliance with release conditions, court hearings, and final orders of removal," the spokesperson said, adding that ICE is committed to protecting privacy right and civil rights of the participants within the ATD programs.

"The program allows for closer monitoring of non-detained noncitizens at varying levels of supervision, using several different monitoring technologies. ATD increases compliance with release conditions, and helps the participants meet their basic needs and understand their immigration obligations. Those who do not report are subject to arrest and potential removal," the spokesperson added.

Private prison companies operating ICE facilities in Louisiana have come under fire in recent years after multiple reports of abuses against asylum seekers inside detention centers.

Vice President Kamala Harris said in a March interview with The Advocate that the White House was aware that "there have been abuses" in ICE facilities in Louisiana.

The agency recently announced it would scale back its use of Winn Correctional Center in Winnfield, where immigrants, advocates and immigration attorneys have decried filth, violence, and lack of medical care.

While applauding Biden's promises to reform the immigration detention system, pro-migrant groups raised concerns when it was revealed that alternatiave-to-detention programs would be run by BI, Inc., a subsidiary of GEO Group, a private prison company that runs detention centers.

On April 1, 2020, under the Trump administration, ICE signed an exclusive five-year contract with BI Inc., which an ICE spokesperson said at the time was valued at $2.2 billion, and that was expected to serve 90,000 to 100,000 participants every day.

"It's like, they are placing money to the same jacket, but they are just changing the pocket," Gonzalez said.

"These private prison companies realized there has been push back on the way they profited on detention and deportations. Their response was to try to remarket the same products but in different ways, and they were able to accomplish that," Gonzalez said.

According to ICE, the average daily cost of the ATD Intensive Supervision Appearance program, including ankle bracelets and telephonic reporting system, is about $7.29 per day for each participant.

These costs account for all technologies used and other overhead costs, the agency noted.

The growing use of programs like SmartLINK and the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced occupancy of some Louisiana detention facilities.

In 2019, there was an average of 6,201 people detained in in 12 detention facilities in under NOLA supervision, according to ICE data.

In October, the beginning of the 2022 fiscal year, there was an average of 3,725 asylum seekers detained in the same facilities.

Still, companies such as GEO Group and LaSalle Corrections, two major private prison firms that operate ICE facilities in Louisiana, continue to benefit from a funding mechanism that compels the federal government to pay them a minimum for beds that may not be filled.

Buried inside (page 144) the Budget Overview that DHS and ICE presented for Congressional Justification in January 2022, the so-called guaranteed minimum reportedly cost Louisiana taxpayers an extra $80 million for 5 of the 14 facilities under NOLA ICE supervision in 2020.

ICE reports that today nearly 75% of non-citizens enrolled in the ATD program across the country are using SmartLINK.

If an asylum seeker owns a smartphone at the time of the enrollment, the person is asked to download the SmartLINK app to respond to the routine check-ins by deportation agents.

If the person doesn't, they are issued a SmartLINK-loaded device that is locked and unable to be used other than through the app.

According to ICE, the technology has many benefits. Push notifications are sent periodically to the asylum seeker, including reminders of court hearings and office visits.

Asylum seekers can search through a database to connect with community service providers in their area such as food banks, clothing providers or community services.

They can also use their smartphone or tablet to get information info about the case they are involved rather than rely on a case specialist, the agency noted.

But Jacinta Gonzalez of Mijente said that some employers who worked with BI in the SmartLINK program are telling another version of the story.

"Many thought they were going to really help asylum seekers in a concrete way. Instead, they found themselves to be trained to use hostile technique to pursue surveillance on immigrants, not support for asylum seekers," Gonzalez said in an interview.

Pro-migrant advocacy groups are also worried about what BI Inc. does with the information it collects.

Asked about the program, Monica Hook, a spokesperson for BI Inc., referred all questions to ICE.

In February, the 25 Democratic lawmakers wrote in the letter to DHS Secretary Mayorkas that individuals previously considered low risk such as family units, pregnant or nursing mothers are "now subjected to intensive supervision and for excessive periods of time."

The U.S. recognizes the legal rights of asylum as specified by Congress in the Immigration and National Act. The United States committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unanimously adopted by the United Nations on Dec. 10, 1948. The declaration set the right for every individual to seek asylum.

"Electronic surveillance replicates the harms of detention centers and pad the pockets of private detention and technology companies," said Andrea Carcamo, policy director at Freedom for Immigrants, a nonprofit devoted to ending immigration detention.

"We must divest from enforcement and confinement systems under the management of DHS and ICE and instead invest in nurturing our communities with the resources and tools they actually need in order to thrive and live in safety."

©2022 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.