Think tank says biometric monitoring of asylum seekers is better for all than detention
An open-society think tank pushing for fair enforcement of immigration policies has published a defense of the United States’ biometric Alternatives to Detention program.
The Niskanen Center says the program is an effective and comparatively thrifty extension of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement daunting mission. It does not do enough, however, to protect the privacy of enrollees and those who may show up in the background of a video check-in.
With Alternatives to Detention, or catch-and-release, as opponents of the immigration program call it, ICE or an immigration judge decides an asylum seeker can bypass a detention center and be remotely supervised. Immigration proceedings take an average of 2.3 years to be resolved as of this month, according to TRAC Reports.
One option for monitoring asylum seekers is a government-issued phone loaded with GPS software and SmartLINK, a face biometrics scanning app.
The biometric app, made by BI Inc., a subsidiary of private prison firm GEO Group, monitors a person’s location and enables voice and video calls, making it easier for users and case workers to check in. ICE agents also can set calendar reminders for required appointments.
According to reports from immigration advocacy groups, SmartLINK requires users to submit contact information for five family members and friends, which brings them into a system many would prefer to avoid.
About 90,000 people were using some aspect of the Alternative program during the first fiscal quarter of 2021. About 26,000 people were using SmartLINK, according to ICE. Another 28,000 were being monitored with GPS. And 32,000 people were enrolled in a telephone voice recognition service.
The government in fiscal 2020 spent $149 million on ATD, according to ICE. The fiscal 2021 budget rose to $440 million.
Niskanen says Alternatives is significantly less expensive than housing people in detention centers and is a more humane alternative for people caught in a civil law situation, not criminal law.
However, the organization points out that the program can create significant privacy problems for asylum seekers, there family and friends and even people who inadvertently walk in front of a SmartLINK camera.