Immigration Injustice

From Walls to Shackles: The Big Business of Electronically Monitoring Immigrants

Immigrants are being watched, and corporations are profiting.

Connie Cheng

August 15, 2022

At 22 years old, Jesus almost lost a foot. He had fled from Honduras to the United States seeking asylum. Once released from the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), he was placed on a GPS ankle monitor. The grillete, or shackle, dug into his skin, causing a blister that soon became infected. He called the company behind the monitor, but a representative instructed him not to go to the hospital to avoid having the device removed.

When Jesus finally sought medical help, doctors told him he was at risk of losing his foot and cut off the shackle.

Jesus is not alone. According to a survey of immigrants subject to ankle monitoring, 90% experienced harm to their physical health, including electric shocks and burns. Nearly the same proportion, 88%, reported negative impacts to their mental health, including 12% who considered suicide as a result of being monitored.

These stark figures complicate the perception of electronic monitoring as a promising “alternative to detention,” billed as both more humane and more cost-effective than physical incarceration. Still unaccounted for are the costs of expanding the reach of immigration enforcement beyond the walls of detention—and relying on corporations to do so.

The United States is home to the most expansive immigration detention system in the world, which is perhaps unsurprising for a nation with the largest prison population and the highest incarceration rate. However, immigration law is supposed to be civil—not criminal—law, and courts do not consider immigration detention to be punishment. This means, as Harvard Law School’s Phil Torrey wrote in 2015, “immigration detention is criminal detention but without the constitutional protections.”

In recent years, there has been growing public awareness of the deplorable conditions of immigration detention, especially in facilities operated by private prison companies. Images of children under foil blankets in overcrowded cages sparked outrage. So did reports of forced labor and inadequate medical treatment. Calls to end immigration detention have grown louder, and even President Biden campaigned on a still-undelivered promise to shut down private detention centers.

Immigration detention is also expensive. In fiscal year 2020, ICE had $3.14 billion in funding for custody operations, amounting to $8.6 million per day. On average, detaining one person costs about $200 per day. Advocates on both sides of the aisle have championed “alternatives to detention,” which can cost as little as 70 cents per person per day.

Motivated in large part by these potential savings, ICE has experimented with alternative-to-detention programs since the 1990s. However, ICE’s own website states that these alternatives are “not a substitute for detention” but rather provide ways for “ICE to exercise increased supervision over a portion of those who are not detained.”

The chart shows a steady increase in the number of immigrants in alternatives to detention, from 27,000 in fiscal year 2015 to a projected 170,000 in fiscal year 2023.

The average daily population of immigrants in alternative-to-detention programs since fiscal year 2015. Sources: DHS Budgets-in-Brief (FY 2017–2023).

The pilot program that stuck combines ankle monitoring and telephonic check-ins. Known as the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP), it was launched in ten cities in 2004 by BI Incorporated, a private contractor.

In a 2009 report on three alternative-to-detention pilots, ICE described ISAP as “the most restrictive and costly” option, even acknowledging that the program had received criticism for “overly restrictive conditions of supervision.” But the year prior, Congress had already appropriated $62 million to fund the nationwide expansion of ISAP. By 2021, the program’s budget had swelled to $475 million. In its fourth iteration today, ISAP makes use of GPS tracking through ankle shackles, voice recognition through telephonic reporting, and facial recognition through a mobile app.

Formerly known as “Behavioral Interventions Incorporated,” BI was founded in 1978 as a dairy cow tracking service in Boulder, Colorado. The company has since pivoted from cattle to humans, becoming the nation’s largest provider of electronic monitoring services in the criminal and immigration enforcement systems.

From 2004—when ISAP was first piloted—through 2019, ICE awarded BI with contracts totaling more than half a billion dollars. That figure does not include the latest five-year, $2.2 billion exclusive contract that BI signed with ICE in 2020.

The company has since pivoted from cattle to humans, becoming the nation’s largest provider of electronic monitoring services in the criminal and immigration enforcement systems.

In 2011, BI was bought by GEO Group, one of the largest private prison companies in the world, for $415 million in cash. BI would become part of “GEO Care,” one of GEO’s wholly owned subsidiaries. At the time, the acquisition was expected to increase GEO’s total annual revenue by $115 million to more than $1.6 billion.

When announcing the purchase, GEO CEO George Zoley told shareholders, “It’s just another opportunity to grow our company in a different way and maybe even on a faster, accelerated basis because of the application and concept of continual care.”