US immigration biometrics program with few allies outside the White House draws lawsuit
Over-promise or wishful thinking has made a biometric alternative to immigration detention a punching bag. And the only ones being bruised are would-be migrants and U.S. taxpayers.
The federal government has repeatedly enlisted technology in its efforts to manage immigration, either to make asylum-seekers’ lives more tolerable or to paint an ugly system a prettier color. Neither is working.
Detention centers were to be replaced with ankle bracelets, which were stigmatizing, uncomfortable and less effective than expected in safely keeping tabs on would-be migrants until their status hearing.
Face and voice biometrics on handheld phones are supposed to be the most humane alternative to detention, but critics charge that the devices create 24/7 digital prisons. And the private company operating the phone app/program, SmartLINK, is not open about how data collected is used, stored or destroyed.
In fact, three immigrant-rights organizations sued the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency this week, demanding to see any data that has been collected.
Mijente, Just Futures Law and Community Justice Exchange have a beef with the government, but the focus of their ire is BI, a company launched decades ago to track cattle wirelessly. Today, BI runs ICE’s $2.2 billion alternative detention program, of which SmartLINK is one component, according to Government Technology.
A knot of Congressional Democrats are almost as unimpressed with the program, which began under Trump.
This would not be the first time that the federal government or its contractors trafficked in immigrants’ digital information.
According to political-news publisher The Hill, the Trump administration reportedly bought asylum-seekers’ phone data to track them. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in 2020 to get details on the operation.
Also, ICE is known to use Harris Corp. Stingrays to monitor locally cell phone transmissions.
Advocacy groups, including the ACLU, and news outlets are increasingly insistent that the government be transparent about a program that was, after all, sold as humane and effective.
The Hill has separately reported that 136,026 immigrants were surveilled last November as part of an ICE program called Intensive Supervision Appearance (ISA). That is an all-time high, according to The Hill’s reporting. All must either wear an ankle bracelet, check-in with phone calls or use SmartLINK’s biometrics. Government Technology reports over 90 percent of immigrants in ICE’s New Orleans ISA program use the biometric system.
That number was 86,000 at the start of 2021, and according to U.S. immigration policy, resources dedicated to program lag far behind the monitoring needs. Today, almost 60 percent of asylum-seekers are in the supervision Intensive Supervision Appearance Program.
The Hill reports that would-be immigrants find themselves in the SmartLINK program an average of 615 days.
The Biden administration says very little about SmartLINK or the supervision program. Obviously, it is too inhumane for immigrant advocates, and anything short of packing immigrants into one-way buses southbound is too humane for anti-immigrant agitators.