ICE agents use smartphone app to monitor illegal migrants awaiting hearings

Usage of the app skyrocketed during the pandemic, as many government agencies switched to online models.

Updated: March 10, 2022 - 2:02pm

U.S. authorities have expanded the use of a smartphone app to ensure that illegal immigrants released from detention centers will show up to deportation hearings – sparking criticism from privacy and immigration advocates.

Over 125,000 people, many of whom were stopped by authorities at the U.S. southern border, were instructed to download an app called SmartLink, which allows officials to check on them by requiring the illegal migrants to send a selfie or conduct a phone call when asked. 

The technology is a big change to the ankle monitoring system. But immigration advocates say it violates the privacy of the migrants and tethers them to their smartphones in a way that is unfair, considering many have paid bond to leave the detention facilities.

The advocates also worry that the government might use the app data to track the whereabouts of immigrants and use it to potentially round up and arrest others in the country on immigration violations. 

Usage of the app by Immigration and Customs Enforcement exploded during the pandemic, when many government services went online. It continued to soar as President Joe Biden called on his Justice Department to curb the use of private prisons to hold detained migrants. 

As the use of the app has surged, so have the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. awaiting hearings. The current number of cases before the backlogged immigration court system is about 1.6 million. The app is one of the ways that immigration and Biden administration authorities have touted reducing the number of illegal migrants in detention facilities. 

In a statement to the Associated Press, ICE said that the app is "an effective method of tracking non-citizens released from DHS custody who are awaiting their immigration proceedings."

According to the outlet, agency officials recently told Congress that using the app is also a far cheaper alternative than holding an individual at a facility. It costs about $4.36 a person per day to use the SmartLink app, and more than $140 per day to hold someone in a facility.

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