DENVER — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) started testing a new surveillance device on immigrants in the Denver area in May. Now, ICE is expanding its test to Los Angeles, with plans to use the device nationwide.
ICE has not publicly announced the expansion of the pilot program. But a Denver7 review of ICE data released in late August shows that in addition to the 50 original participants in Denver, the agency is now testing the watch on 50 immigrants in Los Angeles.
An ICE spokesperson told Denver7 the “limited deployment" in Denver and Los Angeles is intended “to further test feasibility” of the technology before rolling it out nationwide.
“The device leverages technology similar to a consumer smartwatch, but it cannot be used for any function beyond compliance with immigration-related activities,” the ICE spokesperson said.
The device, known as the VeriWatch, can track a person’s location in real-time, scan their face and send and receive messages from ICE officers and case managers. ICE says it is a less obtrusive way to ensure immigrants who are not detained show up for their court hearings and other obligations.
But immigrant rights advocates in Denver say ICE hasn’t provided much advance notice or explanation of the technology before using it in the community.
Anaya Robinson, a senior policy strategist for the ACLU of Colorado, said ICE told community groups in Denver about the pilot “mere hours before the actual rollout occurred, and then folks within the community were contacted to show up that day, or the next day, to receive their smartwatches and start utilizing them for monitoring.”
ICE testing new immigrant surveillance device in Denver
Five months into ICE’s test of the watch in Denver, the agency hasn’t shared much about how the technology is being used.
“They have a responsibility to explain to community members what it is, how it works, why they're using it and what they are doing with that data,” Robinson said.
The VeriWatch device was created by BI Incorporated, a private monitoring technology company based in Gunbarrel, Colorado, just north of Boulder.
BI Incorporated is owned by the private prison giant GEO Group, which operates facilities housing roughly one-third of all immigrants detained by ICE, including the ICE Processing Center in Aurora.
Denver7 contacted BI Incorporated, GEO Group and Day 1 Alliance, an industry group that represents the private prison company. We did not receive a response.
Since 2004, ICE has paid BI Incorporated nearly $2 billion for monitoring technologies. This year alone, ICE’s budget for alternatives to detention was $442 million, according to an agency report to Congress.
“There's an extremely high likelihood that it's not actually saving us money," Robinson said.
Although technology like this is intended to be an alternative to detention, the number of immigrants in detention and alternatives continue to grow at the same time.
“We're just pumping more money into the system without any real positive results,” Robinson said.
Instead of paying private companies to monitor immigrants, Robinson said the government could save money and increase effectiveness by investing in legal representation and case management services.
“Over 95% of community members show up to their hearings when they have representation,” he said.
As the government relies more on monitoring technologies, Robinson said concerns over privacy will continue to grow.
“Technology gives allowability to constant surveillance,” he said. “Of all of us.”