Immigration

Many of Miami’s immigrants wear ankle monitors. Will technology betray them? 

Morena Mendoza wears an ankle-monitoring bracelet after being separated at the border from her son and finally reunited.
Morena Mendoza wears an ankle-monitoring bracelet after being separated at the border from her son and finally reunited. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

At 7:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, Aug. 21, a line of about 30 people — most of them wearing long pants that covered small bulges at the ankle — stood in front of a nondescript office building in North Miami off a busy stretch of Biscayne Boulevard. They chatted among themselves as traffic zoomed by.

Half an hour later, the building’s doors opened and the line of people streamed in. It’s a scene that plays out every single day for undocumented immigrants with ankle monitors, which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) requires some to wear as an alternative to detention.

More than 4,550 immigrants are subject to ankle monitoring by ICE in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That makes the Miami field office — which oversees those regions — responsible for the second largest non-detained, ankle-monitored population in the country, according to ICE detention statistics.

The early morning visits to the Biscayne Boulevard facility — home of BI Inc, the monitor manufacturer that’s earned more than half a billion dollars from ICE contracts and is a subsidiary of the giant Boca Raton-based private prison firm, The Geo Group — are part of “regular check-ins,” those standing in line said.

Emeli, a Honduran woman who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in early May, was among them.

She had been wearing a monitor for about three months. First, she had it on her left leg, but after that started hurting too much and her skin started peeling, it was changed to her right leg. She says that what caused her the most pain was the humiliation that came with the way people treated her when they spotted the device.

“People think you committed a crime or something. There’s a lot of discrimination. Even in a Honduran restaurant, surrounded by my people, where only Hondurans go to eat, I got so many bad looks that I started to cry,” said Emeli, who declined to give her full name. “No one wants to give you a job either. Because employers see the monitor and they don’t like it. They don’t like it at all.”

New vulnerability for ankle monitor wearers?

With an apparent increase in the number of raids resulting in immigrant apprehensions, the ankle monitors are raising concerns that GPS technology could be used to target the population.

Earlier this month, immigration authorities had a record-setting day by arresting nearly 700 workers in massive raids at seven Mississippi food processing plants. It was touted as the biggest single-day, one-state sweep in U.S. history, according to officials.

For GPS-monitored immigrants like Emeli, those raids could be a source of worry.

According to unsealed search warrants, immigration authorities used GPS data gleaned from immigrants’ ankle monitors to target the worksite sweeps, NBC News reported. That marks the start of a new enforcement tactic used by ICE, one which lawyers and advocates say is disconcerting.

“This is not something that we have heard of in the past, and of course it’s very troubling to think that ICE is using that information [in this way],” said Jessica Shulruff Schneider, Detention Program Director at the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice. “[Immigrants] are already burdened by this big essentially electronic shackle around their ankle and [...] to have ICE use that as an enforcement tactic is highly disturbing and problematic.”

Shulruff Schneider said GPS data from ankle monitors has traditionally been used to ensure migrants appear for their court cases or, if they are ordered deported, to make sure they show up for removal proceedings. “That’s vastly different from using the electronic monitoring specifically for the purposes of tracking someone’s whereabouts to enforce enforcement tactics,” she said.

For immigrants, the use of electronic monitoring devices — which are otherwise reserved for criminal parolees — started in 2002 and really picked up over the course of the last five years. Those who have to wear them say they spend hours next to outlets to make sure the devices are charged, otherwise they make sounds. With the monitors also come physical discomfort and sometimes even outright pain.

“For me, my legs would get so swollen because of the monitor that they had to switch it out and find a larger one,” a Cuban immigrant chimed in as she, too, waited in line.

After the role GPS data from monitors played in the Mississippi raids earlier this month, activists said the stigma monitor-wearers already face is likely to grow.

“On the one hand, you would have individuals that are forced to wear the ankle shackles who would not really want to be around others that they would put at risk. On the other hand, you would have individuals who would see them with the ankle shackling who wouldn’t want to be around them,” said Shulruff Schneider.

“Again, this is a fairly new tactic that we haven’t seen but I imagine those could be some of the consequences,”she said. “It’s something that continues to strike fear in the immigrant community.”

ICE Spokesman Bryan Cox said that “no one in ICE custody is required to wear an ankle monitor; however, when a custody determination is made based on the totality of the circumstances in any specific case, GPS monitoring may be required as a condition of release from custody.”

“Persons released from ICE custody subject to electronic monitoring are, in fact, subject to electronic monitoring,” Cox said in an email to el Nuevo Herald. “It would be a person’s individual choice whether to accept those conditions of release.”

But whether there actually is room for individual choice is contested.

“When you are placed into this situation when it’s either your liberty or being tracked like an animal, you don’t really have much of an option, because most individuals would prefer to be out and monitored than be kept in a detention center,” said Shulruff Schneider. “That being said, even if the person is not detained, it feels like they’re monitored and from a psychological and emotional perspective that has a big impact.”

As Emeli inched toward the front of the line at the nondescript building on Biscayne Boulevard that recent hot and humid morning, the ankle monitor began to feel a bit lighter.

“Today, they are actually taking my monitor off,” she said, letting out a laugh. She got a call the previous evening with the news that she’ll be switched into a different alternative to detention (or ATD) program. Instead of wearing a GPS monitor, she’ll now have to use a smartphone app called SmartLINK, which uses facial recognition to confirm identity as well as location monitoring.

That seemed like an improvement.

“They’re going to take this thing off, I am going to be free again,” Emeli said. “I had told my sister this. I said, ‘When they take this monitor off me, I’m going to run in the streets and scream that I am free.’”

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Immigrants wearing ankle monitors enter building on Biscayne Boulevard as part of regular check-in requirements. Lautaro Grinspan

Lautaro Grinspan is a bilingual reporter at the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. He is also a Report for America corps member. Lautaro Grinspan es un periodista bilingüe de el Nuevo Herald y del Miami Herald, así como miembro de Report for America.
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