ICE On My Wrist: Immigrants Will Start Wearing Electronic Monitoring Watches This Month
The Department of Homeland Security will put GPS monitors on immigrants' wrists starting later this month, part of a new global trend in electronic monitoring.
ICE’s Acting Director Tae Johnson told Congress this week that the agency would start requiring some immigrants to wear wrist-worn electronic monitoring watches by the end of the month.
The watches are made by the contractor BI, which has managed ICE’s alternatives to detention (ATD) program since 2004. The BI VeriWatch serves a similar purpose as GPS ankle monitors except they are smaller and more discreet, but also capture much more data and uses biometric authentication.
At the appropriation meetings in the House, Tae Johnson described the watches like this: “Later this month, ICE also plans to begin a limited technology demonstration of a wrist-worn GPS monitor, adding an additional option to our ATD technology suite.”
Outside of Johnson’s remarks to Congress, the agency has made no mention of these smartwatches at all on its website, including ICE’s newly redesigned ATD website. ICE currently uses three types of technologies to monitor immigrants on ATD: telephonic reporting, GPS ankle monitors, and the smartphone app called SmartLINK—all provided by BI.
The incorporation of wrist-worn electronic monitors into ICE’s repertoire of devices is another troubling step in the expansion of electronic monitoring. The agency has still not been forthcoming about its policy for when and why ICE moves immigrants from one technology to another. ICE and BI have misled the public repeatedly about the number of immigrants on various technologies. And repeated studies have shown that electronic monitoring, while often represented as an alternative to detention, is not an alternative at all but an expansion of carceral logics.
The United States is not the only country using wrist-worn GPS ankle monitors to track migrants. The UK Home Office has a contract with Buddi Limited, a UK-based electronic monitoring company, that manufactures GPS smart watches and fingerprint scanners. Buddi’s main commercial venture so far appears to be selling wrist-worn security devices for the elderly.
ICE is not BI’s first public customer for these watches. Just last month, BI secured a five-year contract to provide Santa Clara County in California with BI’s VeriWatches. But ICE will no doubt be BI’s biggest customer as the agency grew the ATD program from around 85,000 migrants at the start of the Biden administration to a height of about 375,000 in late 2022. The numbers are now down to less than 300,000, but it’s hard to predict where it will go.
The introduction of SmartLINK is primarily what allowed the ATD program to expand in the first place. Adding yet another form of monitoring could allow the program to expand again unless ICE simply wants to replace existing ankle monitors with VeriWatches, which would only impact around 5,000 people right now.
At the moment we simply don’t know a lot. Johnson’s remarks to Congress are all we have to go on at this point and the fact that they are rolling out this technology this month with no other information provided to the public.
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