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ICE testing new immigrant smartwatch surveillance device in Denver

Immigrant rights advocates call it unnecessary, expensive and harmful
Posted at 8:20 AM, May 12, 2023

DENVER — The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is testing a new surveillance device on immigrants in the Denver area, with plans to roll it out nationwide. But immigrant rights advocates told our Denver7 partners that this latest expansion of ICE's so-called alternatives to detention program is unnecessary, expensive and harmful.

The VeriWatch device looks similar to a smartwatch, but it can track a person’s location in real-time, scan their face and send and receive messages from ICE officers and case managers.

The device was created by BI Incorporated, a private monitoring technology company based in Gunbarrel, Colorado, just north of Boulder.

ICE announced the pilot program in late April, calling it a less obtrusive manner of increasing compliance for immigrants who are not detained while they move through the legal system.

Fifty people are currently wearing the watches in ICE’S Denver test group. None of them were in detention, and all were already showing up for their court hearings and meetings with officers, according to advocates familiar with the cases.

“This is not an alternative to detention. It's actually an expansion of an invasive surveillance technology,” said Siena Mann, a campaign manager with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

The watch combines surveillance technologies that BI Incorporated and its parent company, the private prison giant Geo Group, have sold to ICE for almost a decade. Since 2004, the U.S. government has paid more than $1.8 billion for the Colorado-based company to monitor immigrants who do not have criminal records and would not otherwise be detained.

Given the high costs, and the fact that almost all immigrants show up for their court hearings and ICE meetings without being monitored or detained, advocates are opposed to the new device.

“It is not needed, and it's extremely expensive, and it's for profit too,” said Gina McAfee, a volunteer with the American Friends Service Committee’s Colorado Immigrant Rights program. “Taxpayers are paying a private company to make a profit off of these technologies that they put on immigrants to try to control them.”

Unlike a standard smartwatch, this new surveillance watch is “very large and obtrusive,” said Jordan Garcia, a program director for the American Friends Service Committee. Half of the immigrants wearing the watches in Denver must keep them on 24 hours a day. The other half are required to wear them during the day while they are working.

The new watch functions similarly to an ankle monitor, a device that can contribute to stigma, discrimination and negative physical and mental health effects. These devices can also jeopardize employment and deprive people of privacy, a recent study shows.

"If you're in a job interview, it's really obvious,” Garcia said. "If you're working in manufacturing or in agriculture, it could be a dangerous thing to have to wear.”

Instead of paying private companies to monitor immigrants, Garcia said the U.S. government could invest in “more lawyers, and more people who are processing paperwork so that we can have people normalize their status and process their cases.”

ICE has successfully tested case management and legal assistance programs in the past. But under the past three presidential administrations, the federal government has increased its spending to both detain and surveil immigrants. Under President Joe Biden, ICE has paid more than $250 million per year for privately-run surveillance of immigrants.

“We are concerned that this could be massively expanded and utilized not only in our communities here in Colorado, but around the country,” said Mann. “We have the opportunity with this being piloted in Denver to try to halt it here.”