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Biden’s Immigration “Fix” Involves Jailing Migrants in Their Homes

The new digital incarceration program will be administered by private prison giant GEO Group.

A mother displays her ankle bracelet provided by ICE as part of her asylum contact when she entered the United States, in Bloomington, Illinois, on February 16, 2019.

The Biden administration is launching a new program of digital incarceration – otherwise known as electronic monitoring or e-carceration — for migrants caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a report from Reuters citing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The program, which will involve confining migrants through electronic monitors, is officially called “home curfew,” and is expected initially to include 164,000 people, but could expand to include up to 400,000. It will be run by BI Incorporated, a subsidiary of the private prison giant GEO Group. Immigrant advocates have criticized the program, arguing that home surveillance continues to criminalize migrants and further entrenches the for-profit immigration enforcement industry.

On Wednesday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib and 24 other Members of Congress delivered a letter to DHS opposing the e-carceration programs, including the new home curfew requirements. The elected officials were joined by 176 humanitarian organizations, which collectively wrote that “ICE has excessively deployed” electronic surveillance measures on “immigrants who would not otherwise have been detained.” They also criticized the program’s massive budgetary increases, from $28 million in 2006 to $475 million in 2021.

The news is further evidence that the Biden administration is primarily seeking to retool some aspects of border enforcement, rather than adopt an approach that radically breaks with that of Donald Trump and his predecessors. Perhaps most controversially, Biden has embraced Trump’s use of a World War II-era law called Title 42 that allows border agents to expel migrants and asylum seekers immediately with no access to the courts to plead their case. The Biden administration has also defended Trump’s family separation policy in court, as well as Title 42 enforcement. Immigrant detention numbers skyrocketed during Biden’s first year in office to nearly 27,000 in detention in July 2021, though the numbers fell in 2022 and currently stand at around 20,000. In August 2019, Trump held a record 55,000 immigrants in detention.

Yet, as of early February, about 182,000 immigrants are confined in some form of “alternative to detention” — mostly involving various types of electronic monitoring — through ICE. That number is up from 83,000 in September 2019. It’s not clear how many of the migrants subjected to the new house arrest program will come from existing programs and how many will be newly added. The Biden administration has massively expanded DHS’s so-called Alternative to Detention (ATD) programs, which include the new home confinement initiative, and consists primarily of using surveillance technology like electronic ankle shackles. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) also uses facial and vocal recognition technology to monitor migrants, software that privacy advocates say is often racist and unreliable, and allows the government to engage in bulk surveillance outside the regular criminal legal system.

In other areas, Biden has moved away from some of Trump’s most aggressive policies. His administration has put a stop to worksite enforcement actions (raids), and also ended long-term family detention, which had been in place to varying degrees since 2001. Biden has also extended temporary protected status to hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the United States after Trump revoked those protections.

Still, the administration’s new embrace of the home confinement program appears to exemplify Biden’s muddled and contradictory approach. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to “end for-profit detention centers,” arguing “[n]o business should profit from the suffering of desperate people fleeing violence.” In his first weeks in office, Biden signed an executive order that required the Department of Justice not to renew contracts with private prison companies, though immigrant detention facilities were exempted. As of September 2021, nearly 80 percent of detained immigrants were housed in for-profit facilities, according to ACLU research. That number is virtually unchanged from January 2020, when Trump was still in office. Meanwhile, the new expansion of electronic monitoring will significantly extend the reach of for-profit companies.

Importantly, the fact that private companies are benefitting from the program is an effect, not a cause, of the expansion of digital incarceration, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others have noted. Underlying structural injustices and racist, xenophobic and classist policy making are driving the crisis, and private companies are reaping some of the profits.

The new program will begin with pilot programs in Baltimore and Houston, and is set to expand nationwide later this year, according to Axios. Specific details of the program remain unclear, but the migrants controlled under the program are expected to be subject to stricter oversight and requirements than standard ATD protocols. In general, it will require migrants to stay in their home from 8 am to 8 pm, enforced through electronic monitoring.

Migrants and their advocates are often very critical of the ankle monitors they’re forced to wear, sometimes for months or years at a time while they wait for their court hearing date. Common complaints are that the ankle shackles, or grillete as many migrants call them in Spanish, are visible as the wearers go to work, go grocery shopping or pick children up from school, and reinforce a stigma that immigrants are dangerous or violent.

In many cases, the devices need to be charged as well, which can impose challenging scheduling constraints on people who often have little control over their daily schedules. The shackles are also uncomfortable, as they chafe the skin, and can make showering or bathing an ordeal. The devices have also been known to issue pre-recorded verbal commands to their wearers, “reminding” them of mandated check-in dates. Such surprise orders can be disorienting or embarrassing, and could potentially put the wearer at risk if they are in an environment where their status is not public.

GEO Group, and its subsidiary BI Incorporated, was reportedly awarded a $2.2 billion federal contract in 2020 to launch the program, though the companies have said the actual contract was lower. The expanded program could be a boon to the company, whose stock has fallen recently after booming during Trump’s first year in office. The company recently restructured to meet its debt obligations, dropping its status as a real estate investment trust, a business classification that includes companies that own office buildings and shopping centers.

Immigrants’ rights advocates have criticized GEO Group, and its main private prison competitor CoreCivic, for years, arguing that their facilities are poorly maintained, dangerous, expensive and unnecessary. Federal oversight into the facilities is limited, even when it comes to in-custody deaths. A research paper from 2021 found that of the 71 people died in ICE facilities from 2011 to 2018, the Office of Detention Oversight only collected information on 55 of them. Of those 55 deaths, 34 occurred in for-profit facilities.

Like all jails and prisons, immigrant detention facilities had been riddled with COVID outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic. Last year, a federal judge extended protections to immigrants held at the Mesa Verde facility near Bakersfield, California, after finding that ICE and GEO Group hadn’t created any procedures to protect detainees from the spread of COVID in the facility. “[T]he conduct of key ICE and GEO officials in charge of operations at Mesa Verde has been appalling,” Judge Vince Chhabria wrote in one ruling.

By deepening GEO Group and BI Incorporated’s role in immigration enforcement through the new e-carceration program, the Biden administration is trying to find a technocratic fix for a political problem. As in so many other areas, it has taken a conflicted, contradictory approach in its apparent attempts to reduce the population of detention facilities. There’s no reason why the administration can’t take bold measures toward actually ending detention. Instead, the Biden administration is apparently trying to appease its political opponents by sticking to a hardline approach. The result will be more surveillance and stigmatizing of migrants, and further entrenchment of the for-profit immigration-industrial complex into the country’s approach to border crossing.

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