Poor tech, opaque rules, exhausted staff: inside the private company surveilling US immigrants | US immigration

The computers at the BI Inc call center in Anderson, Indiana, are powered around the clock. Behind the monitors, dozens of customer support employees scan their screens for an alert to pop up – the signal they may be about to lose track of one of the thousands of people they’re tasked with watching. The warning could mean the ankle monitor they’re keeping tabs on is running low on battery. Maybe someone they’re tracking missed a scheduled check-in or moved outside the perimeter they’re required to stay in.

The activities at the call center are part of the US government’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (Isap), a surveillance system launched in 2004 and pitched as a way to keep immigrants out of detention centers while they await a court hearing on their legal status.

For more than a decade, the government has entrusted Isap’s operations to a single private enterprise: BI, a little-known company founded in 1978 to monitor cattle and acquired by private prison corporation the Geo Group in 2011.

BI has said in public statements that its system is built on two pillars: the electronic surveillance of people through ankle monitors and tracking apps, and “high quality case management” that helps immigrants integrate in American society.

In reality, BI primarily runs a surveillance operation, one that discourages employees from providing immigrants with personalized services and is hampered by BI’s glitchy proprietary technology, interviews with 12 former BI employees, immigrants in the program, lawyers, advocates and immigrants’ sponsors, as well as internal BI documents, reveal. The for-profit scheme can work against those required to participate, these people say, and often prioritizes the company’s revenue-driving technology over helping immigrants navigate the process.

A Guardian investigation has found:

  • Monitoring as many as 300 people at once, BI case managers often don’t have enough time to offer immigrants tailored support and some are even discouraged by managers from doing so.

  • BI’s ankle monitors can overheat, have shocked people, and at times are put on too tightly by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice).

  • BI’s app frequently malfunctions, causing immigrants to miss required check-ins.

  • There are few protocols governing case managers’ decisions, even though they have enormous repercussions in immigrants’ daily lives.

The US government pays BI hundreds of millions of dollars a year to run Isap. In 2020, the company signed a new five-year contract with Ice for nearly $2.2bn.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is expanding Isap to include new levels of supervision such as strict curfews.

As of January, more than 182,600 people were enrolled in Isap, more than 60,000 of whom entered the program in just the preceding few months. Most of them will spend at least a year wearing an ankle monitor and even longer being subjected to BI’s facial and voice recognition systems, according to 2022 Ice data.

woman’s feet in flip flops with ankle monitor
A woman from Honduras wears an ankle monitor in Massachusetts. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters

Immigrant advocates and former BI employees worry such monitoring may result in longer, even permanent, surveillance.

BI referred the Guardian to Ice for all questions concerning its work on Isap.

Ice did not respond with an on-the-record comment by the time of publication but said Isap was effective in ensuring people complied with release conditions, court hearings and final orders of removal. BI’s technology was one aspect of the program, Ice said, and was effectively deployed in support of case management efforts.

The agency also said BI provided immigrants with connections to social services regardless of caseload, and that there was no evidence that ankle monitors physically harmed those who wore them. BI had received an exceptional rating for its management of Isap during its most recent contractor assessment at the end of January, Ice said.

The White House did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Little time to offer help

The job description for the case manager role at BI that Olivia Scott took in 2019 said she’d be helping individuals get settled in their communities and manage the immigration process. “If you are passionate about influencing positive changes in the lives of others, this may be the right opportunity for you,” the description read.

Scott was excited to use her experience working for an immigration attorney to help people navigate the labyrinth that is the US court and immigration system.

But she quickly learned that at her BI office, there would be little time to provide the kind of individual help that would effectively support people through the immigration and court process.

Immigrants are placed in the BI system by Ice, after being apprehended at the border or detained within the US. Some immigrants are offered a choice: stay in a detention center until your court date, or leave but agree to surveillance. They are assigned a surveillance regimen, which entails an electronic component (an ankle monitor, telephonic reporting, or regular checks through BI’s proprietary SmartLink app) and some combination of home visits from BI case workers or visits to the BI office. The level of surveillance is determined by local Ice agents, taking into account factors such as immigration status, criminal history, compliance history, medical needs and familial circumstances.

Most immigrants end up wearing a monitor for one to two years as they wait for their court dates, though former BI employees had come across people wearing a monitor for seven to 10 years. Some people in the program transition from wearing a monitor to regular check-ins on the SmartLink app until their hearing – a period that could take years. During that time, Ice said, the BI program helped people meet their immigration requirements and could connect them with services to help meet those requirements, including individual and family therapeutic sessions, legal aid, education or vocational opportunities.

Scott worked at one of BI’s Indiana locations, and her caseload included as many 200 people, she said. She had little to no time to offer people personal support, she said.

The BI system would send her a warning every time one of the people she was monitoring appeared to be out of compliance, but those warnings were frequently triggered by errors from the company’s own technology, Scott recalled.

A list of all the malfunctioning ankle monitors she switched out described issues including “multiple restarts”, “dies quickly”, “not holding charge”, and “blinks over 24 hours”. BI’s SmartLink app often glitched, she said, at times preventing people from uploading geo-tagged selfies within the allotted time window.

She barely had time to help people troubleshoot between back-to-back home and office visits Ice had assigned, she recalled. “Participants would spend hours trying to complete their check-in,” she said. “That became frustrating for a lot of them.”

Scott spent the little time she did have with each person on the basics: ensuring they knew when their court date was and that they complied with the level of supervision they were assigned.

The limits of her role became especially clear a few months into her job, Scott said. When she and a colleague tried to help a woman they were monitoring escape an abusive relationship – after multiple requests to have her ankle monitor removed were denied – their supervisor scolded them for putting in the effort, Scott recalled. They shouldn’t have done that, Scott remembered the supervisor saying; case workers aren’t supposed to be so accessible.

“You were supposed to be hard on people,” Scott said she was told. “You could take no excuses. If people come in complaining about their [ankle monitor], you’re supposed to say: ‘Well, that’s life, you’re just going to have to deal with it.’”

Ice said its contract required BI employees to treat people in the program with dignity and respect, and that providing services was always a priority, regardless of caseload. The agency said 44,000 services – which could include mental health, community support or family dynamic services – were provided to people in the program between 2013 and 2019.

‘Like being a probation officer’

Scott’s experiences at BI mirrored those of several other former employees who spoke to the Guardian, who requested not to be named because they fear retribution from the company or Ice.

At least seven former employees said they were often discouraged from or were too constrained by their caseloads to provide immigrants with tailored help. They said case managers generally were in charge of keeping track of between 125 to 300 people at once, leaving them little time to do much beyond ensuring the ankle monitors didn’t run out of battery or that people were checking into the app regularly.

people march behind banner and carry US flag
Immigrants’ rights activists march in Washington. Photograph: Allison Bailey/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

That BI’s approach was mostly focused on surveillance was also apparent from internal company communications and training courses, the former employees said.

Internal company culture and messaging signaled that BI saw the case management side of the program as a time and resource cost, the employees said.

For example, BI employees were supposed to provide those in Isap with a standard list of pro bono legal services, but two former case managers said the lists at times included just a handful of organizations that could not handle the hundreds of immigrants being referred to them. A list the Guardian reviewed, distributed in October 2021, included six organizations – two of which only represented people in detention.

During new employee training at the company’s Boulder, Colorado, headquarters, employees were required to spend a minimum of two hours on ethics training and one hour each for human relations and “communications across cultures”, according to the company’s 2020 contract with Ice. Three hours were devoted to disorderly conduct, four hours to note-taking, and eight hours to self-defense. That last course taught employees how to get out of the grips of an attacker, four people said. Some were taught how to break a person’s leg. All four said they were being taught how to protect themselves against Isap “participants”.

“The program reminded me a lot of being a probation officer for participants who weren’t criminals, in my opinion,” one former employee said. “It’s a lot of supervision and being monitored pretty much 24/7.”

The employees all said immigrants had complained about malfunctioning apps. App Store reviews over the last three years list myriad issues, including people missing their check-ins because notifications didn’t work, photos that failed to register, login troubles, and malfunctioning geotag software. “I hate having to explain why my check-ins aren’t working. Please fix this!” one review read.

Six former employees said they had loosened or switched out ankle monitors that had been put on too tightly by Ice officers, though they knew of other case managers who lacked time for such tasks. Some case managers had personally experienced the monitors overheating when they wore them during training. Attorneys and former employees say that their clients in the program often complain about being shocked by the monitors.

Many of the former employees were struck by the enormous power they wielded over people’s lives, and how few protocols there were governing crucial decisions in the program.

It was not clear to the employees, for example, how Ice determined the level and duration of surveillance assigned to people. Case workers could recommend to Ice that people be “de-escalated” to less strict forms of surveillance if they had met certain requirements, but it was up to case workers’ personal discretion to initiate that process and they had little insight into why Ice approved certain recommendations and declined others. Two former case managers said Ice only approved about 20% of the people they recommended for de-escalation.

The agency strongly disputed that BI ankle monitors had harmed some of the people wearing them. BI had conducted extensive testing of its products and had not reported any instances or evidence that the ankle monitors produced enough heat or power to overheat or shock someone, it said. The agency did not respond to questions about whether the agency independently verified the results of these tests.

‘No transparency’

Isap’s reliance on surveillance tech is a relatively recent development, according to Julia Mao, director of the immigration rights group Just Futures Law. In the program’s first years, ankle monitors were rarely used – if immigrants weren’t detained they would typically be released rather than surveilled, required only to check in with an Ice officer yearly or every few months, said Mao. Ankle monitors and other supervision systems became the standard response to someone crossing the borders in 2015, amid an immigration surge, she continued: “So we’re talking about putting ankle shackles on people that would normally get released.”

Ice data indicates at least 182,607 people were enrolled in the program as of January, a nearly 50,000-person increase from October 2021. In the three weeks leading up to 7 February, half of the single adults who were stopped trying to cross the US-Mexico border were released with ankle monitors or other tracking devices, according to Axios.

An asylum seeker checks the battery level on his ankle monitor as he works on English language lessons.
An asylum seeker checks the battery level on his ankle monitor as he works on English language lessons. Photograph: Damian Dovarganes/AP

Funding for programs such as Isap has steadily increased over the years, from $28m in 2006 to $440m in 2022 , an increase that, according to the Biden administration’s 2022 budget request, would “ensure a more humane system for families seeking asylum” and enable Ice to monitor 140,o00 people. (Isap exceeded that number by December 2021.)

But the budget for detention has grown as well, from $1bn in 2006 to $2.8bn 2021, according to a group of US lawmakers who have called on the Biden administration to reform the program. “Ice cannot reasonably call Isap an ‘alternative to detention’ if the program effectively subjects more immigrants to the agency’s supervision while it simultaneously expands formal detention programs,” the lawmakers said in a 23 February letter to the homeland security department.

“Based on [the government’s] 2004 pitch around a humane alternative as well as an alternative that reduces the overall number of individuals in detention, [Isap] has undeniably failed to achieve [the government’s] stated purpose,” said Mao.

Rather than re-evaluate a program immigrants and activists have long complained was flawed, the administration is also hoping to expand the types of surveillance immigrants could be prescribed in Isap to include a stricter curfew system that would require people to be home for 12 hours a day, according to Reuters.

BI and the Geo Group are on board. The Geo Group bought BI in 2011 for $415m. By 2019, BI’s contract with Ice made up 22% of the Geo Group’s business, on par with its federal contracts to run private prisons – formerly the group’s bread and butter.

For the Geo Group, expanding its reach in the immigration system became more important than ever following the Biden administration decision last year to limit the US government’s use of for-profit prisons, said Jacinta Gonzalez, a field director at the Latinx rights group Mijente.

“They’re seeing it as a way of continuing to have carceral contracts with the federal government, but in a new way,” said Gonzalez.

BI’s business model is built on offering a “continuum” of surveillance solutions that interact with the end user – the immigrant, in this case – at every part of the process. For each, the company charges Ice different amounts: Two employees estimate BI charges about $4-$5 a day for each ankle monitor it deploys and about 25 cents a day for each person using the app. Home visits by a case manager cost Ice about $25, according to the employees.

As the Biden administration considers new levels of surveillance, BI is encouraging employees to tie more immigrants to their tools, former employees said. As recently as September 2021, two former employees said, BI managers were encouraging case managers to ask immigrants to download the app to communicate with them, even if they already wore an ankle monitor. People without phones are at times getting issued loaner phones at the border with the app pre-downloaded, the employees said.

The for-profit nature of BI’s business concerns Gonzalez, who said she was worried about what the company could do with the user and biometric data collected through SmartLink.

“We have no transparency into how they’re using the data and what they’re doing with it,” she said. “I both don’t trust Ice with that information and I don’t trust a private company with it, particularly when so many companies have contracts with data brokers to buy and sell information. We know that biometrics is a growing industry, so what’s stopping a company like Geo from selling their database to another company?”


Zubair Q Britania

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