Digital Cages: How ICE Uses Digital Surveillance to Track Migrants
BU immigrant rights expert Sarah Sherman-Stokes has found alternatives to detention, like ankle monitors, take a physical and psychological toll on asylum seekers
“Elizabeth’s” parents were both murdered by gangs in her native country in Central America. At 22, she fled to the United States with her siblings, aged 5 and 12, seeking asylum. Released from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention, she was first fitted with an ankle monitor, requiring charging, maintenance, and unscheduled check-ins. That eventually was removed—but she was required to put an app on her phone so ICE could track her.
“She was constantly exhausted and anxious,” writes Boston University immigrant rights expert Sarah Sherman-Stokes in a new paper, “burdened with the knowledge that ICE had full access to her phone and that if it stopped working or failed to connect to the app, she would be detained and separated from her brother and sister.”
Sherman-Stokes, a BU School of Law clinical associate professor of law, says US authorities have been turning with increasing frequency to what she calls “digital cages”—made of ankle monitors, cell phone apps, and check-in protocols—to track thousands of migrants awaiting their asylum hearings. Her paper, “Immigration Detention Abolition and the Violence of Digital Cages,” was published in the latest edition of the University of Colorado Law Review and outlines the prevalence and burden of this enforcement method, which is part of ICE’s Alternatives to Detention program.
The news daily reports on the thousands of migrants risking their lives to cross America’s southern border in hopes of a better life. Most come from South and Central American countries and are fleeing poverty and violence. On the way, they are abused by smugglers known as coyotes, vilified by politicians, and must survive the desert, the Rio Grande River, and/or razor wire to reach their goal. The ones who make it face detention, deportation, or an uncertain future in a divided country. And for many, constant supervision.
“There is a significant physical and psychological toll of this monitoring and surveillance,” says Sherman-Stokes, who is also associate director of LAW’s Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Program. “It impacts the daily lives of these people and their families in their communities in really profound and specific ways.”
Her paper focuses on a handful of cases, but she says more than 300,000 migrants are currently monitored by the program, although the numbers are fast changing and the government is not always forthcoming with data.
There is a significant physical and psychological toll of this monitoring and surveillance. It impacts the daily lives of these people and their families in their communities in really profound and specific ways.
According to anecdotal reports from Sherman-Stokes’ clients, as well as a survey of 150 migrants, the shackling can have “pretty devastating physical and psychological impacts,” she says. “Everything from accidentally being shocked by the ankle shackle, the physical pain and surprise of that, to the sense of constantly being watched and being controlled and being on a ‘leash.’”
In BU’s Immigrants’ Rights program, Sherman-Stokes has taken her students to Boston’s Logan Airport, federal courtrooms, and both sides of the southwestern border to immerse them in the struggles of migrants. In other recent papers, she’s examined immigrant expulsions and deportations, reparations for refugees, and the treatment of mentally ill noncitizens.
Fleeing Persecution, Met with Surveillance
The migrants placed in digital cages are in legal limbo, Sherman-Stokes says, despite seeking asylum as they are legally entitled to do. They’re waiting for their hearing, for their case to be adjudicated, in hopes of getting asylum, but that can take a long time. “Potentially years,” she says. “Currently, the backlog of cases is in the millions.”
Many asylum seekers are released pending their hearings, but the GPS-tracked ankle monitors and the app that ensnared Elizabeth allows the government to keep watch. “They have to check in on their phone. It might include voice identification or other kinds of technology that both tracks them and records their whereabouts,” Sherman-Stokes says.
Government officials say that they are trying to make the asylum process easier on migrants—and one that’s better than physical detention. Sherman-Stokes argues that’s a false claim, because there are not hundreds of thousands of beds in brick-and-mortar detention centers.
And while migrants given alternatives to detention have some freedom of movement, she says it comes at a cost: the embarrassment (and occasional shocks) of the ankle monitors, which can hinder them in society, and the way their lives can be thrown into even more tumult by a minor technological glitch or a single forgotten check-in on the phone.
Perhaps hardest is “this fear that they’re constantly under the thumb and under the watchful eye of the US government, even when what they’re doing is benign and innocuous,” she says. “It’s important to remember that these people are primarily asylum seekers, which means by definition they’re people who have fled persecution, torture, trauma in their home country.
“Many of them were surveilled by their home country governments,” Sherman-Stokes says. “That was part and parcel of the persecution they fled. And then they come here and we say, ‘Welcome to America, we’d like to continue to surveil you.’ It’s triggering and retraumatizing, at the very least.”