Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Expanding Penal Landscapes into Immigrant Communities: Digital ‘Alternatives’ to Detention in the USA

Author(s)

Carolina Sanchez Boe
Postdoctoral Carlsberg Foundation Fellow at IMC, Aarhus University

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5 Minutes

Guest post by Carolina Sanchez Boe. Carolina is a postdoctoral Carlsberg Foundation Fellow at IMC, Aarhus University and affiliated with CERLIS, Université de Paris and SADR, City University of New York. Her research specializes in deportation, prisons, immigration detention and digital confinement and border control, in France and the USA. This is the final post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'The Changing Landscapes of Immigration Detention' organised by Ana Ballesteros-Pena and Cristina Fernández-Bessa.

foot with ankle monitor
Lilia and author walk together in a San Antonio mall. The bulky device blinks and is difficult to hide, causing stigmatization and isolation in public spaces, in the labor market, and, increasingly, within immigrant communities, due to a growing awareness that people around the monitored person are also under surveillance. Photo: Jessie Rodriguez 

“When you’re in immigration detention, you are just desperate to get out. Put three grillette on me, just let me out! But once you are outside, things get complicated.” Lilia, an asylum seeker in Austin, Texas, looks down on the big black plastic box strapped tightly to her thin ankle. Grillette means ‘ankle shackle’ and is commonly used by Spanish-speakers to describe the electronic monitors used by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) under the Department of Homeland Security, since 2004. Lilia explained how the grillette made her feel oppressed, as though she were still in detention, or rather, incarcerated “como encarcerada”, using the terms “immigration detention” and “prison” indistinctively, as many immigrants do, adding: “I think that through my grillette, ICE follows where I and other asylum seekers go – so that they know where undocumented migrants meet and congregate. That way, they can arrest more undocumented migrants.” Three weeks later, on 19 August 2019, ICE conducted the largest immigration raid in recent US history, arresting 680 workers at a poultry manufacturing plant, detaining and deporting hundreds of couples, leaving their children to come home from school to empty houses. The Mississippi raids marked a new era of immigration enforcement with the active participation of Silicon Valley tech giant Palantir and the use of data harvested from digital monitoring of asylum seekers for the preparation of the raids. The affidavit of the arrest revealed how hundreds of migrants were arrested by extracting surveillance data over time from the electronic monitors of three women from Central America who had found work at the plant, one of them having worn an electronic ankle monitor for five years, another having been ‘de-escalated’ to facial recognition app SmartLINK® in February 2019. 

Lilia and I first met in July 2019 during my research project Borders Without Fences and Confinement Without Walls, funded by a grant from the Independent Research Fund Denmark. Based on collaborative anthropological fieldwork with monitored migrants, the project studies the spread and experiences of electronic monitoring for internal border control to understand how they compare with incarceration and detention behind physical walls and fences. The project spurred the makings of a collaborative video and photo exhibit project with Mexican-American videographer Jessie Rodriguez. It was followed by a Carlsberg Foundation funded project Digital Confinement. The reconfigurations of borders and detention through new technologies, which focuses on facial recognition app SmartLINK®. 

woman uses an app on her phone
Asylum seekers supply the detention device themselves – their own smartphone – and are made to download the app through Google Play or Apple Store. Photo: Carolina Sanchez Boe 

De-escalation? The alternative to the alternative: facial recognition 

Being detained through a smartphone is often thought to be a more humane alternative to the original alternative to detention, electronic ankle monitors. Ankle monitors often generate bodily harm, such as chafing, sores and allergies, and they are thought to potentially endanger pregnant women, their fœtus or future child. SmartLINK® was first implemented along gendered lines, as a ‘de-escalation’, which resonates with abolitionist term ‘decarceration’. This term, and the idea that the app is a lighter form of detention than the ankle monitor, is, however, very misleading. 

During five years, Lorena, an asylum seeker who has fled violence in Guatemala, has experienced being tracked through all three forms of electronic monitoring deployed by ICE: an electronic ankle monitor, voice recognition and SmartLINK®. She was initially relieved to get her ankle monitor off, until she was required to give ICE access to her email account, which connects to her social media, and install an app on her own smartphone that holds photos of her family and friends along with other personal information. To Lorena as to others, facial recognition is worse than the grillette and detention, as it is an even more intrusive form of confinement. Once a week she is required to take a photograph of herself in the app, and she has to have the phone on her and the GPS turned on at all times, so that ICE can follow her every step.  Like Lilia, she fears that she may endanger others by her mere presence, with drastic consequences for her larger community. 

SmartLink app is shown on a phone
Lorena is guiding me through SmartLINK®. In 2010, BI Group was bought by GEO group, one of the world’s largest prison and detention contractors. Photo: Carolina Sanchez Boe 

Economies of Confinement 

Electronic ankle monitors, which were first deployed in the criminal legal system, started being used as an ‘alternative’ to immigration detention in 2004, first monitoring foreign-nationals who had been sentenced to prison, then detained, and who for various reasons cannot be deported. The program has since expanded to include persons who would otherwise never have been detained, including asylum seekers apprehended at the Southern border, such as Lilia and Lorena. 

When I first met the two women in 2019, they were among 32,000 migrants who were tracked through electronic monitoring. Today (26 January 2023) 24,170 migrants and asylum seekers are detained, while 324,554 are monitored through these forms of digital confinement. Sixteen months earlier, in October 2021, when a first version of this blog post was published, they were 136,000. 

The numbers of immigrants detained and the numbers of immigrants submitted to electronic monitoring have both risen exponentially, in a parallel development, ensuring great wealth and lobbying power to private prison companies that re-invest some of the resulting profit to influence detention policies, ensure more government contracts, and impede reforms that would hurt their interests, as Gilman and Romero’s research shows. Between 2006 and 2021, budgets for digital alternatives to detention increased from $28m to $440m, as shown by Just Future Law and Mijente. In May 2021, President Biden asked Congress to validate a budget that would increase the number of immigrants submitted to alternatives to detention from over 96,000 to 140,000 in 2022, and in February 2022, President Biden asked Congress to validate budgets that would allow to raise the numbers of monitored to 400,000 within a year, with a clear tendency towards an increased use of facial recognition app SmartLINK®.  

Photo of front door of GEO Group office
Lilia walks into GEO Group’s San Antonio office. Today, GEO Group profits from both the expansion of detention and from alternatives to detention, just as the for-profit company benefitted from the parallel expansions of prisons and electronic monitoring for probation. Photo: Jessie Rodriguez 

While research participants described their experience of digital alternatives as highly intrusive to themselves and dangerous for their communities, some immigration advocates still perceive the deployment of digital tools as a welcome alternative to the terrible hardships of immigration detention. The calls to “Free Them All” during the COVID-19 pandemic also led to the release of detainees with ankle monitors and SmartLINK® and an added expansion of the ATD program. It is urgent to divest from both detention and digital alternatives and redirect funding towards non-profit, community-based and constructive initiatives that already exist in the USA, such as shelter Casa Marianella in Austin, Texas, which welcomes newly arrived asylum seekers and provides support services to meet their emergency or transitional needs.   

What we are witnessing is a carceral continuum, with technologies from the criminal justice system being implemented in immigrant communities, thus expanding detention and surveillance beyond the monitored person to their co-workers, neighbors, and friends. Just as electronic monitoring for criminal justice purposes expanded carceral spaces into the city, digital ‘alternatives’ create immigration detention in communities, multiplying internal borders within urban and rural spaces. We are now moving into a new era where immigration control and for-profit extraction of migrants’ time and mobility is no longer only carried out by the ‘usual suspects’ from the for-profit prison industrial complex, but increasingly so by tech companies that are investing in what they see as a new market, internal immigration enforcement. Darren Byler and I suggest that the targeting and racialization of minorities through digital tools is a global phenomenon, which raises pressing ethical concerns over our own production and use of digital data, as activists and researchers. 

‘Lilia’ and ‘Lorena’ are pseudonyms. 

See also: American Bar Association Webinar: ‘Electronic Monitoring of Migrants: Alternative to Detention or Just Another Form of Punitive Custody’, 26 January 2023 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

C. Boe. (2023) Expanding Penal Landscapes into Immigrant Communities: Digital ‘Alternatives’ to Detention in the USA . Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/03/expanding-penal-landscapes-immigrant-communities. Accessed on: 17/04/2024

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