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“Something Better” Than Detention for Immigrants?

Electronic monitoring is cheaper, but it’s not humane.

Garífuna woman with GPS ankle monitor. The device must be worn 24 hours a day. (Photo: Cinthya Santos Briones)

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The New York Times editorial board recently put out a call to “End Immigration Detention.” Detention “breeds cruelty and harm, and squanders taxpayer money,” violates due process, “shatters families and traumatizes children” and is “immoral,” the Times writes.

Also see: US Program to Resettle Central American Minors Likely to Help Few

Also see: Central America “Aid” Won’t Slow Migration

“Shut the system down, and replace it with something better,” the editorial adds. The Times recommends cheaper and “more humane” alternatives including “ankle bracelets and other monitoring technologies.”

Even the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in a December 2014 op-ed, suggested electronic ankle monitors and release on bond as “effective and more humane alternatives to detention.”

While nearly everyone would choose wearing a GPS monitor on their ankle 24 hours a day over being locked up in an immigration prison, groups like Detention Watch Network and the International Detention Coalition consider such devices to be “an alternative form of detention,” rather than an alternative to detention. A recent report from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Center for Migration Studies, mentioned in the Times editorial, concurs: “Electronic monitoring devices violate human dignity and should be used only in rare cases.”

Symptoms included swelling and infections of the ankle, severe leg cramps, headaches and dizziness, and skin burns when the device heats up during charging.

“Just as before they placed the slaves in iron chains, now in the capitalist economy our chains are electronic,” said Carla García, international coordinator of the Honduran grassroots group OFRANEH, as quoted in a January 2015 article on the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) website. García said that GPS tracking devices were attached to the ankles of about 400 Garífuna women from Honduras who came to New York after having sought asylum at the southern US border over the summer of 2014. “We the Garífunas were slaves, and we freed ourselves. We are a community that fought against the colonizers, and then this type of program makes us remember our history,” she said.

Some Garífuna women told NACLA they were surprised when the monitors were attached to their ankles during their first check-in with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after arriving in New York. As one woman explained, ICE already had the names and addresses of their family members, so they couldn’t have escaped anyway.

Community and religious leaders in the Bronx fought successfully to get the electronic shackles removed – after three or four months – from about 85 Garífuna women, according to an April 13 article in El Diario NY. The women must still submit to regular supervisory check-ins.

A Larger Prison

How bad are the ankle monitors? The term “ankle bracelets,” used by The New York Times, suggests a delicate piece of jewelry. The GPS device weighs about 2 pounds and must be worn 24 hours a day; it has to be plugged into the wall to charge for about four to six of those hours. Honduran women interviewed for several articles reported symptoms that included swelling and infections of the ankle, severe leg cramps, headaches and dizziness, and skin burns when the device heats up during charging.

Many also reported feeling shamed and humiliated by the devices and said people on the street looked at them as if they had committed terrible crimes. Parents struggled to explain the devices to their children. A Honduran asylum seeker in Boston, quoted in the Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario, said her 8-year-old son was so affected by her suffering that he told her: “Mommy, take that device off and put it on me, so you can rest.”

Detainees on electronic monitoring are placed under varying levels of restriction by immigration officers or contract employees, who determine when and where they are allowed to go. Contract employees have the right to visit the homes of monitored detainees at any time without warning. The GPS devices frequently issue loud recorded instructions – for instance, when they’re triggered by accidental interference or loss of signal, or when the people wearing them accidentally stray outside a designated area or leave their homes after certain hours.

Wearing an electronic monitor “is like being in a larger prison, under total control, because even though you’re walking in the street, you feel persecuted and morally affected, but the worst thing is the constant humiliation and shame,” said Miguel Araujo, a California restaurant owner and community activist who has lived in the United States since 1962. Araujo was released from detention in 2010 while awaiting a court decision on his deportation; he had been wearing the ankle monitor for nearly two years when he was interviewed in 2012 by the Los Angeles daily La Opinión.

“A lot of times without realizing I kick it with my foot and immediately a loud recorded voice says: ‘Report yourself immediately! Report yourself immediately!’ ” When that happens, said Araujo, he must quickly call or visit an ICE contractor who wants to know where he is and what he is doing.

Activist Matias Romas, a cofounder of the national immigrant youth advocacy network United We Dream, was fitted with an ankle monitor by ICE in 2011. Through a petition campaign, he managed to get it removed 10 days later and published an op-ed on his experience. “[N]ow I get what it really means to experience abusive government intrusion into your life,” Romas wrote.

“This is not really freedom,” explained Salim Yassir, whose tormented experience with a prototype GPS tracking device in 2004 was profiled in a Newhouse News Service article. “It’s a slice of freedom.”

For Punishment or Profit?

The success of activists and community leaders in winning release from electronic monitoring underscores the arbitrary nature of the program. There is no individual assessment and no weighing of “risk factors.” (What’s the big risk, anyway? That someone might not show up for their court hearing?) In some cases, the monitors seem to be imposed only for a 90-day period, then removed. So is this whole exercise designed to prevent people from “absconding,” or just to punish and humiliate them?

Or is the program motivated by financial gain? Electronic monitoring is done by BI Incorporated, a wholly owned subsidiary of the for-profit corporation Geo Group, operating under contract with ICE. By early July 2014, about 7,440 immigrants were under electronic monitoring supervision nationwide – up from 7,297 the previous year, according to The New York Times.

“Electronic monitoring has widened the corrections net by providing a more intrusive and expensive alternative, not to incarceration, but to regular probation and other community sanctions.”

BI Incorporated has been contracting with ICE to provide electronic monitoring and related supervision services since an initial pilot program in 2004. The company was acquired by Geo Group in 2011, and in September 2014, it won a new contract with ICE. The new contract is “expected to generate approximately $47 million in annualized revenues,” according to a press release from Geo Group, described as the “world’s leading provider of diversified correctional, detention, community reentry, and electronic monitoring services to government agencies worldwide with operations in the United States, Australia, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.”

In the United States, in 2014 alone, GEO Group made more than $1.7 million in political contributions and spent $2.5 million on lobbying, according to the company’s political activity report.

A Real Alternative?

Many human rights advocates are reluctant to condemn the electronic monitoring program because they want to encourage ICE to release people from immigration prison. But a 2012 report by the Rutgers School of Law-Newark Immigrant Rights Clinic (IRC) and the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Immigrant Rights Program points out that electronic monitoring is frequently imposed on people who would otherwise be released under less restrictive conditions, instead of being used as an option for people who would otherwise be locked up in jail. The report – aptly titled “Freed but Not Free” – references “multiple anecdotal examples” of non-detained immigrants who showed up to their routine supervision appointments at the ICE office in Newark and, without warning or explanation, were fitted with an electronic monitor.

Condemning the use of electronic monitoring for immigrants in Canada, rights activists Harsha Walia and Syed Hussan note a similar pattern within the criminal legal system there. In an op-ed, they cite the John Howard Society of Canada as finding “considerable evidence that electronic monitoring has widened the corrections net by providing a more intrusive and expensive alternative, not to incarceration, but to regular probation and other community sanctions.”

The International Detention Coalition has developed a community assessment and placement (CAP) model for governments to follow when dealing with immigrants and refugees. Starting from the presumption that detention is not necessary, the CAP model strengthens “the community context” by improving case management, ensuring access to legal advice and interpretation, providing migrants with documentation and meeting their basic needs.

The US Department of Homeland Security already has the discretion to release immigrants on their own recognizance, on bond, on parole or into community-based alternative supervision programs, which like the CAP model include case management and referrals to support services. A backgrounder published by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service lists several community-based alternatives, which proved over 90 percent effective at ensuring that people attend their court hearings and appointments, without the need for electronic monitoring or other burdensome requirements.

If, that is, it even matters whether people attend their court hearings. Whether we realize it or not, “absconders” are living among us as neighbors, friends and family members. So are former absconders: Before the laws grew more restrictive in the mid-1990s, it was possible to get deportation proceedings thrown out and to gain legal immigration status and eventually citizenship – even if in the past you had jumped bond or otherwise violated release terms.

An editorial in the US “paper of record” calling for an end to the immigration detention system is a welcome development for activists fighting to expand migrant rights. But isn’t it time to take a step back and ask, why do we even deport people? Like detention, deportation tears apart families and communities. And it costs a lot of money – our tax dollars. Does it serve some social purpose – other than to justify locking up immigrants and violating their human rights? Can we abolish it?

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