No love for ankle monitors on captured immigrants

EL PASO, Texas (AP) — Federal authorities’ shift away from separating immigrant families caught in the U.S. illegally now means that many parents and children are quickly released, only to be fitted with electronic monitoring devices — a practice which both the government and advocacy groups oppose for different reasons.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is issuing thousands of 5.5-ounce ankle monitors that immigrants call grilletes, or electronic shackles, spelling big profits for GEO Group, the country’s second largest private prison contractor.

Government officials say the devices are effective in getting people to show up to immigration court, but that they stop working once deportation proceedings begin. The reason, according to attorneys and people who wore the devices or helped monitor those wearing them: Some immigrants simply ditch them and disappear.

Immigrant advocates and legal experts argue, meanwhile, that the devices — which are commonly used for criminal parolees — are inappropriate and inhumane for people seeking U.S. asylum. The American Bar Association has called doing so “a form of restriction on liberty similar to detention, rather than a meaningful alternative to detention.”

Congress first established the program in 2002, though GPS monitors grew more common as deportations rose to record levels under President Barack Obama’s administration, averaging more than 385,000 annually from 2008-2012. Their use increased even more after 2014, when thousands of unaccompanied minors and families began traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border and asking for asylum, fleeing gang and drug smugglers or domestic violence in Central America.

Earlier this year, immigrant families were separated as part of a “zero tolerance” program. But President Donald Trump reversed that policy with an executive order in June, meaning reunited families are being treated like other asylum seekers. They’re usually detained for a few days, then issued ankle monitors and released to live with friends or relatives already in the U.S. as they progress through a process that can take years.

As of early July, there were nearly 84,500 active participants in ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, or alternatives to detention — more than triple the number in November 2014. Around 45 percent of those were issued GPS monitors, 53 percent report by phone using biometric voice verification and 2 percent use facial recognition apps.

ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke said immigration court attendance is strong for immigrants in intensive supervision, but that ankle monitors and other measures are “not an effective tool” after deportation orders are issued. There isn’t reliable information on the number of ankle monitor recipients who remove them and flee — especially when deportation is imminent — but experts say it’s high.

“People can just cut those things off if they want to,” said Sara Ramey, a San Antonio immigration attorney whose asylum-seeking clients are routinely assigned ankle monitors. “It doesn’t really ensure compliance.”

The most recent available data was in 2012, when a contractor’s annual report (later referenced in a 2015 Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report) showed that 17,524 people, or around 65 percent of nearly 40,500 total participants, left the intensive supervision program that year. Of those, around a fifth were deported or granted asylum, while about 5 percent “absconded.” The rest were arrested, violated other program rules or were no longer required to participate for unspecified reasons — which made determining the program’s true success rate impossible.

Many in the Trump administration see alternative to detention programs as undermining their larger goal of keeping immigrants in custody, which helps resolve court cases faster and leads to more deportations.

Officials wanted to keep families in detention until their cases were completed, but a federal agreement on the handling of children in government custody generally prevents youngsters from being detained longer than 20 days. In the meantime, ankle monitors and other alternatives to detention programs resulted in 2,430 people being deported from the U.S. in fiscal year 2017, Bourke said. That’s an average cost of $75,360 per deportation.