Ice will test smartwatch-like tracking devices for migrants facing deportation

Washington — On Monday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unveiled a smartwatch-like device to track migrants who have been released from federal immigration custody. The agency claims that the technology could help monitor a small fraction of the millions of individuals with pending deportation cases.

The wrist monitor, which uses GPS technology, is the latest device that ICE will use to track migrants enrolled in the Alternatives to Detention program. This program is an agency initiative that the Biden administration has vastly expanded to supervise migrants who are not deemed a risk to public safety or national security, such as asylum-seekers processed along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Previously, ICE has used ankle monitors, phone calls, and a mobile app with face recognition technology to monitor those placed in the alternatives to detention program. The Biden administration officials have argued that this is a cheaper and more humane way to ensure that migrants comply with their immigration proceedings than holding them in detention facilities.

Currently, more than 5 million migrants are facing deportation as part of ICE’s non-detained docket of cases, which have increased under President Biden due to record apprehensions along the southern border. However, ICE does not have the personnel or resources to detain or monitor all migrants with deportation cases.

According to agency data from earlier this month, roughly 250,000 migrants were being monitored under the alternatives to detention initiative, while another 25,000 were detained in ICE’s network of county jails and for-profit prisons.

According to an ICE official who showcased the device to reporters on Monday, the watches will be tested on a pilot basis for several weeks and provided to 50 migrant adults facing deportation in the Denver area. Depending on how the test period goes, the official added that the use of the device could be expanded.

The ICE official, who requested anonymity to discuss the program, argued that the wrist monitors blend in as they resemble smartwatches, making them “less intrusive than an ankle monitor.” According to the official, the daily operating cost of the watch per migrant will be less than $8, which is much cheaper than detention costs.

In addition to its GPS feature, the watches can tell time, receive messages from ICE officials and case managers, and access a calendar of appointments to allow migrants to check in with officials. Like the phone app that ICE has used to track hundreds of thousands of migrants, the wrist monitors were developed by BI Incorporated, a private company.

During Monday’s briefing, a BI Incorporated representative said that the watch’s features will be available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole. There are also two versions of the watch: one that migrants can take off and another that ICE will require migrants to wear throughout the day.

The removable watch will allow migrants to take it off to charge or when going to sleep. The non-removable version will trigger an alert if taken off, which could require migrants to do a face check-in with ICE. It will also be fitted with a clip that indicates whether migrants attempt to remove it.

According to the agency official, ICE will be testing both versions of the watch in Denver during the evaluation period, which is expected to last between 30 and 45 days.

The device is part of a broader Biden administration effort to ensure that migrants comply with their immigration proceedings without relying on immigration detention, which progressive advocates have denounced as both inhumane and ineffective.

In addition to expanding alternatives to detention, the Biden administration has reshaped ICE’s mission by instructing agents to prioritize the arrest of migrants with serious criminal convictions or who pose a national security risk, as well as recent border-crossers. ICE has also ended mass workplace arrests and generally barred the detention of veterans, victims of serious crimes, pregnant women, and families with minors.

While these changes have been supported by Democrats and advocates, they have also been criticized by congressional Republicans, who have accused the administration of being too lenient on immigration enforcement at a time of historically high migration levels along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Although the administration directed ICE to discontinue the detention of migrant families in 2021, officials have discussed reinstating the practice as the government prepares for a spike in migrant arrivals along the southern border after the Title 42 pandemic-era expulsions policy expires in early May.

During a briefing with reporters last week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that no final decision had been made on whether ICE should revive family detention.

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