Trump’s Turn to Electronic Monitoring Isn’t a Humane Solution

ICE’s use of electronic monitoring devices poses risks to immigrants released from detention.

Zachary Kligler July 24, 2018

Trump is ramping up the use of electronic ankle bracelets on immigrants. (The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) offi­cials announced July 10 that the depart­ment will return to Oba­ma-era catch and release” poli­cies, in which detained migrant fam­i­lies deemed low risk” are released under elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing via GPS-enabled ankle shack­les. This marks a break from the Trump administration’s recent zero tol­er­ance” pol­i­cy of detain­ing and crim­i­nal­ly pros­e­cut­ing all undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants inter­cept­ed at the bor­der. While Trump ini­tial­ly con­demned catch and release as insuf­fi­cient­ly puni­tive and end­ed the pol­i­cy in April, his admin­is­tra­tion was faced with few options after a Cal­i­for­nia judge struck down Trump’s plans for indef­i­nite fam­i­ly deten­tion July 9.

One report told of a Mexican mother of two who experienced electrical shocks and developed painful sores at the site of the shackle. She was told that the shackle was the cause of her symptoms.

Elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing has been laud­ed by main­stream news out­lets, includ­ing the New York Times, as a humane alter­na­tive to deten­tion. But since its 2004 incep­tion, elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing has mere­ly expand­ed the reach of ICE, phys­i­cal­ly injur­ing immi­grants and sub­ject­ing them to a degrad­ing lev­el of sur­veil­lance, while doing lit­tle to curb deten­tion rates. Immi­gra­tion advo­cates have been fight­ing the prac­tice for more than a decade, and con­tin­ue to push for true, non-puni­tive alter­na­tives to detention.

Before the wide­spread intro­duc­tion of elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing devices (EMDs), Immi­gra­tion and Nat­u­ral­iza­tion Ser­vices (INS) had con­tract­ed with the Vera Insti­tute of Jus­tice to devel­op and run a sys­tem of com­mu­ni­ty-based alter­na­tives to deten­tion. Under this sys­tem, peo­ple in immi­gra­tion pro­ceed­ings were giv­en indi­vid­ual case work­ers who would con­nect them with legal, med­ical and hous­ing services.

Yet despite its cost-effi­cien­cy and high suc­cess rates, after INS enforce­ment duties trans­ferred to ICE in 2003, the Vera Insti­tute pro­gram and oth­er sim­i­lar pilots were soon scrapped in favor of alter­na­tives like the Inten­sive Super­vi­sion Appear­ance Pro­gram (ISAP), which relied on more restric­tive mea­sures such as elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing devices. (Elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing has also become wide­ly used else­where in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.) These elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing ser­vices are con­tract­ed through BI Inc., a sub­sidiary of GEO Group, a pri­vate prison cor­po­ra­tion that also oper­ates a num­ber of ICE deten­tion cen­ters. Once these puni­tive mea­sures were avail­able, ICE began impos­ing EMDs on peo­ple who had nev­er even been detained, or who would oth­er­wise have been released on bond with­out restric­tions. Only one holis­tic alter­na­tive has been explored by ICE since the intro­duc­tion of ISAP: the Fam­i­ly Case Man­age­ment Pro­gram (FCMP). The FCMP, which was sim­i­lar to the Vera Insti­tute pro­gram, was found­ed in 2016 and oper­at­ed with high suc­cess rates but lim­it­ed reach until it was can­celled under Trump last June. 

Despite ICE’s claims that EMDs pro­vide expand­ed options for release”, their use has not result­ed in any decrease in deten­tion rates. Rather, rates of both have sky­rock­et­ed over the past decade as ICE con­tin­ues to expand enforce­ment efforts. Dur­ing the first six months of 2015, the num­ber of EMDs in use by ICE near­ly dou­bled to 9,300. Accord­ing to a report released this March by the Cen­ter for Media Jus­tice, that fig­ure has reached 30,000. Greg Chen, the direc­tor of gov­ern­ment rela­tions at the Amer­i­can Immi­gra­tion Lawyers Asso­ci­a­tion (AILA), tells In These Times: What they have done is cre­ate yet anoth­er method of infring­ing upon people’s lib­er­ties when it’s not necessary.”

Of course, giv­en the nature of immi­grant deten­tion and its trau­mat­ic effect on chil­dren in par­tic­u­lar, many advo­ca­cy groups see elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing as an improve­ment. Anne Pils­bury, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Cen­tral Amer­i­can Legal Assis­tance, assert­ed in an email that ICE-imposed elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing is prefer­able to long deten­tion.” The ACLU has also advo­cat­ed in cer­tain cir­cum­stances for elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing as an alter­na­tive to deten­tion, spec­i­fy­ing that it should be used only when the sub­ject is con­sid­ered a flight risk.

But while EMDs may be an improve­ment, they are far from humane. In April 2016, a group of 16 immi­grant legal and advo­ca­cy groups in the Bay Area filed a com­plaint to the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty alleg­ing wide­spread vio­la­tions of ISAP par­tic­i­pants’ rights. The com­plaint com­piles the cas­es of sev­er­al indi­vid­u­als who expe­ri­enced phys­i­cal pain and debil­i­tat­ing symp­toms caused by the mon­i­tor­ing device, includ­ing severe elec­tri­cal shocks, burns, numb­ness and inflam­ma­tion. One report told of a Mex­i­can moth­er of two who expe­ri­enced elec­tri­cal shocks and devel­oped painful sores at the site of the shack­le which spread across her body, caus­ing irri­ta­tion and tem­po­rary loss of eye­sight. She was told upon a vis­it to the hos­pi­tal that the shack­le was the cause of her symp­toms. Nev­er­the­less, she was forced to wear the shack­le for 11 months. ICE claimed that all of these symp­toms were normal.

ISAP par­tic­i­pants are often placed under 12-hour cur­fews, required to check in with agents up to three times a week, and sub­ject to reg­u­lar unsched­uled vis­its. At their reg­u­lar check-ins par­tic­i­pants were forced to wait up to eight hours to be seen, were for­bid­den from using the bath­room, and were for­bid­den from bring­ing their chil­dren despite the fact that many did not have access to child care or sta­ble employ­ment due to the program’s strin­gent require­ments. Agents were reg­u­lar­ly abu­sive toward pro­gram par­tic­i­pants, fre­quent­ly yelling dur­ing appoint­ments and over the phone and refus­ing to meet with par­tic­i­pants’ lawyers or allow them to attend appoint­ments. One par­tic­i­pant report­ed that an agent became enraged and start­ed throw­ing objects when she could not pro­vide a friend’s con­tact infor­ma­tion; anoth­er was threat­ened with depor­ta­tion because she brought her child to her ISAP check-in.

For those sub­ject to elec­tron­ic mon­i­tor­ing, vio­lence suf­fered at the hands of ICE does not end at the deten­tion center’s walls. María Asun­ción, a Hon­duran immi­grant who orga­nizes against ICE’s use of EMDs in the Bronx, com­ment­ed on the devices’ degrad­ing effects to NACLA in 2015 Just as before they placed the slaves in iron chains, now in the cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my our chains are electronic.”

Zachary Kligler is a sum­mer 2018 In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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