ICE program gives limited phones to immigrants for tracking, communication


The claim: The Biden administration spends Americans’ tax dollars to give smartphones to undocumented immigrants

Republicans haven’t been shy about attacking President Joe Biden as soft on immigration, and a claim circulating on social media adds to the chorus with an assertion about giveaway cell phones.

“Waste: The Biden admin spent your tax dollars to give cell phones to illegal immigrants,” says an image posted on Facebook on April 18 that racked up more than 1,300 shares within four days.

But the claim is misleading.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, does issue smartphones with a pre-loaded app to some undocumented immigrants to ensure compliance with release stipulations. But the phones can only be used to access the app – they can’t access the internet, load other apps or make calls. And use of them dates back to the Trump administration.

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USA TODAY reached out to the page that posted the claim for comment, and its response did not challenge the length of the program or the limited nature of the cell phones.

In this file photo taken on July 17, 2020 the Department of Homeland Security flag flies outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters in Washington, DC

Phones come with tracking app, don’t have other capabilities

The phones are used as part of ICE’s Alternatives to Detention program, which started in 2004 and uses technology to “ensure noncitizen compliance with release conditions, court hearings and final orders of removal,” an ICE spokesman said in a statement to USA TODAY.

But the devices have had all other typical phone functions disabled, so the phones are “solely limited to the functions assigned for the purposes of participation in” the detention program, the statement said.

Deportation officers with ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations may consider factors such as a person’s criminal and immigration history, family or community ties, status as a caregiver or provider, or medical considerations to determine whether they will be enrolled in the program, according to ICE. Technologies that may be assigned to participants include GPS tracking, telephonic reporting and the SmartLINK application.

Program participants who are assigned to the SmartLINK option and have their own smartphones can download the app onto their personal devices Those who do not have smartphones will be issued one from the agency.

“The device is locked and is unable to be used other than through the SmartLINK application,” the statement said.

ICE said the SmartLINK app sends push notifications and reminders for upcoming appointments; provides a database for participants to find food banks, clothing or other community services; and allows users to upload and send documents to their case specialists.

If a participant is reassigned to a different supervision level or completes the detention program, the device is returned to the agency, the agency said.

App in use since Trump administration

The post attributes the program to the Biden administration, but the SmartLINK app has been used since 2018, during the administration of President Donald Trump. Approximately 75% of non-citizens enrolled in the detention program use SmartLINK, the agency said.

The Associated Press reported in March that its usage soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. It jumped from 5,000 in 2019 to 150,000 this year.

fact check: Post misrepresents US-Mexico border apprehensions under Trump, Biden

The average daily cost per participant in the detention program is about $7.29, the agency said, adding that the cost accounts for “all technologies used and other overhead costs.”

ICE has an annual budget of $8 billion, funded through the Department of Homeland Security, according to its website.

Our rating: Missing context

Based on our research, we rate MISSING CONTEXT the claim that the Biden administration spends Americans’ tax dollars to give cell phones to undocumented immigrants. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does issue smartphones with a pre-loaded app to undocumented immigrants in some cases, but the program has been around since before Biden took office and the smartphones can only be used to access the app.

Our fact-check sources:

  • Department of Homeland Security, accessed April 26, FY 2022 Budget in Brief

  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement, accessed April 26, Who We Are

  • The GEO Group, accessed April 26, ICE Processing Centers Operated by The GEO Group on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement, April 22, Email exchange with USA TODAY

  • TIME, April 18, US Officials Deploy Technology to Track More Than 200,000 Immigrants, Triggering a New Privacy Lawsuit

  • PolitiFact, April 14, Claim about smartphones given to immigrants who misses key context: they’re used for tracking

  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement, April 13 , Detention Management

  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement, April 9, Active ATD Participants and Average Length in Program

  • The White House, April 8, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jen Psaki

  • The Associated Press, March 10, Deportation agents use a smartphone app to monitor immigrants

  • PolitiFact, April 17, 2013, Immigrants would get free cell phones under new proposal, bloggers claim

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Undocumented migrants can get smartphones for tracking



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