Federal authorities have broadly expanded the use of a smartphone app during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure immigrants released from detention will attend deportation hearings, a requirement advocates say violates their privacy and makes them feel they’re not free, the Associated Press reports. More than 125,000 people — many of them stopped at the U.S.-Mexico border — are compelled to install the app known as SmartLink on their phones, up from around 5,000 less than three years ago. It allows officials to check on them easily by requiring the immigrants to send a selfie or make or receive a phone call when asked. Use of the app by Immigration and Customs Enforcement soared during the pandemic, when many government services went online. It continued to grow as President Biden called on the Department of Justice to curb the use of private prisons. His administration has voiced support for alternatives to detention to ensure immigrants attend required appointments such as immigration court hearings.
The SmartLink app comes from BI Inc, a Boulder, Co.-based subsidiary of private prison company The GEO Group. In congressional testimony, agency officials wrote that the SmartLink app is cheaper than detention: it costs about $4.36 a day to put a person on a detention alternative and more than $140 a day to hold someone in a facility. Initially, SmartLink was seen as a less intensive alternative to ankle monitors for immigrants who had been detained and released. It is now being used widely on immigrants with no criminal history and who have not been detained, said Julie Mao of the immigrant rights group Just Futures. Advocates are concerned about how the government might use data culled from the app on immigrants’ whereabouts and contacts to round up and arrest others on immigration violations.