When Guatemalan-native Adelaida crossed the Mexican-American border at McAllen, Texas, to seek asylum, immigration officials told her very little before they attached a GPS monitor to her ankle.
“I was scared because never in my life had I seen an ankle monitor,” said Adelaida, who asked that her last name be withheld out of fear of retribution for speaking out. “They told me that when I arrived at the immigration office in St. Louis they would take it off. But that’s not what happened.”
She wore the monitor for a year and two months before her attorney made the case for its removal.
The monitor made it difficult for the single mother of two children to get jobs at restaurants and hotels, so she ended up turning to construction work.
She was also required to turn in her passport, which meant she had no form of identification, and had to be available one full day a week for a home visit. Both made it difficult to keep a job, culminating when the ankle monitor caught on a piece of wood and she fell, injuring her ankle and costing her the construction job.
“Honestly, it affected me so much,” she said. “Because I’m a single mother and I have to earn a monthly salary to be able to care for my children.”
Adelaida was among dozens on Monday who protested against practices used in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP). The program uses privately-contracted surveillance technology to track the movements of immigrants awaiting their hearings for asylum.
The advocacy group Migrantes Unidos, which supports asylum seekers in ISAP like Adelaida, organized the protest outside the ISAP office in downtown St. Louis.
Chanting “Queremos justicia!” (we want justice), the group says the use of ankle monitors is erratic and abusive, and it needs to end. They also believe the local ISAP office has the power to make their practices more humane, including ending the requirement to stay home for a full day during the work week and taking participants’ passports.
More than 280,000 people nationwide are enrolled in ICE’s Alternatives to Detention program, according to ICE’s statistics as of April 8. The vast majority are being tracked through ISAP’s technology.
The department does not break the numbers down by state, but there were 15,126 in the midwest region that includes Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Kansas.
In the midwest region, 256 people were wearing GPS ankle monitors, and 13,819 were surveilled using the mobile monitoring app called SmartLINK, which uses facial and voice recognition for check-ins with their case managers.
SmartLINK was designed by BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of GEO Group, the largest private prison company in the U.S. — and the group has an office in St. Louis.
Because ISAP is largely run through private surveillance companies, the program has come under fire for lacking accountability and transparency.
“It’s been really hard to understand what instructions ISAP is receiving from ICE,” said Nicole Cortes, attorney and co-director for the Migrant and Community Action Project, “and what amount of oversight is being provided.”
Migrantes Unidos’ Demands
Last year, three immigrant advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit against ICE over the SmartLINK monitoring app in the U.S. District Court of Northern California in Oakland. The lawsuit wants a judge to require the department to provide information on what data is being collected on individuals and how that data is used.
In March, ICE published its first “privacy impact assessment,” which responded to some of the concerns raised by advocates.
“The monitoring app is not continuously monitoring the participant’s location,” according to the report, stating that case managers are only able to track their location at the time of check-ins.
And it states that the app is designed to prohibit access to other data on a participant’s personal mobile device.
However, the report also acknowledges that the federal government has limited oversight over the companies contracted for ISAP.
“There is a risk that private, nongovernmental organizations will not be appropriately audited and held accountable because the Department of Homeland Security has limited oversight,” the report states.
Because each contractor has a lot of leeway in how they implement the program, Migrantes Unidos believes the local office can address their concerns and implement their demands without laws being passed.
Among the concerns is the required home stays and taking their passports.
Adelaida says she was required to stay home on Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for home visits, which also made it difficult for her to sustain a full-time job. She was also told she had to surrender her passport in order to get her monitor taken off. Not having identification has been challenging for many reasons.
Adelaida didn’t have a phone for six months after she was put on the SMARTLink app — though ICE’s March report states the program would provide devices if participants need them — and she had to use her sister’s phone to be tracked on. If she was not able to take ISAP’s calls, they would continue to question her.
“They spoke to me in a way that made me cry,” she said.
Migrantes Unidos is protesting the use of ankle monitors, officers’ verbal abuse, as well as the required home stay during work hours. They are asking to eliminate these practices, and return the passports to participants.
In April 2021, the organization hand-delivered a letter outlining these requests in detail to ICE officer Martin Garcia, who they believed to be the supervisor of ISAP officers. The concerns were never addressed, group leaders said.
“There is an incredible amount of discretion given to local offices about how they implement this ISAP program,” Cortes said. “Is it humane, or is it functional, or does it accomplish some purpose that we collectively agree is necessary?”
Adelaida is no longer on an ankle monitor and is no longer being tracked through the GPS application SmartLink. An ICE officer told her she could delete the app and would not be placed on an ankle monitor. The only requirements are that she check-in annually verifying her address.
However, she continues to fight for others who are still in the program, so they “feel at liberty here and do not suffer any more injustices.”