McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Biden administration is holding fewer migrants in detention facilities, while the number of asylum-seekers released under the Alternatives to Detention cellphone monitoring program is increasing, Border Report has learned.

As of the end of February, there were 17,984 migrants held by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in U.S. facilities, according to the latest data by the nonprofit Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University, which tracks all immigration cases.

The last time ICE detention rates were this low was in mid-May, but it was followed by a sudden uptick in detentions as a massive number of migrants came across the Southwest border, most into South Texas, last spring and summer.

(TRAC Graphic)

The number of migrants held in ICE detention facilities during the Trump administration was significantly more, peaking over 55,000 in August 2019, TRAC reports.

“We saw a pretty significant drop in the latest data we got from U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement down to under 18,000,” Austin Kocher, a TRAC researcher, told Border Report on Monday.

Kocher attributes the drop in detentions to these reasons:

  • Fewer migrants are being put into detention at the U.S./Mexico border.
  • A drop in interior enforcement arrests of migrants.
  • More migrants are being paroled into the United States to await asylum proceedings under the Department of Homeland Security’s Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program.
(TRAC Graphic)

TRAC reports that nearly 190,000 migrants currently are in ATD. This includes migrants who report via telephone to their caseworkers, those with GPS ankle monitoring devices and those who report via the app SmartLINK from their cellphones.

This is a significant jump in migrants placed in ATD since 150,000 were reported by TRAC to be in the program at the start of the New Year.

“It’s enormous. All of the action on the immigrant detention side is in Alternatives to Detention. There’s been a huge investment from Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Kocher said.

The ATD program utilizes technology, like smartphones and telephonic reporting by migrants to check in with DHS officials under what the agency calls “case management.”

Austin Kocher is a researcher at TRAC at Syracuse University. (Kocher Photo)

But Kocher said there is growing concern within migrant advocates that DHS officials are tapping into much more information on the migrants via these devices.

“The big change is they’re using smartphones with facial recognition technology, and while that is contributing to lower numbers of detentions, there are concerns that the use of that intensive kinds of tracking — not just using geo-locations but using facial recognition technology — having access to migrants’ smartphones may present other concerns to privacy and confidentiality that we just don’t understand yet,” Kocher said.

Last month, DHS announced it was rolling out a new overnight monitoring program that drew criticism from migrant advocates who likened it to placing migrants under “house arrests.”

The 120-day pilot program was to begin in Houston and Baltimore.

Border Report reached out to ICE officials when the pilot program was announced to request specifics on the monitoring of migrants overnight, but no additional information was received.

A DHS spokesperson, at the time, said: “Alternatives to Detention are an effective method of tracking noncitizens released from CBP custody who are awaiting their immigration proceedings. As part of the process, Border Patrol agents collect biometric and biographical information – fingerprints, photos, phone numbers, and an address in the United States – and run a background check to identify criminals or those who pose a public safety risk. Those who do not report are subject to arrest and potential removal by ICE.”

We reached out to ICE again Monday to ask how many migrants are currently in the pilot program but the spokesperson said no additional information was available.

Kocher said TRAC has submitted FOIA requests for additional information because current data does not specify which migrants are placed in the “house arrest” program. It only specifies if they are in ATD and whether they report via telephonic reporting, cellphone or have an ankle monitoring device — something of which Kocher said the administration does not appear to be doing much more.

“I would call on ICE to proactively release those numbers and to let us know. Or add the data to their data set. Just let the public know how big this program is. We would certainly like to know is it a couple dozen? Is it a couple hundred or is it several thousand?” he said.

(TRAC Graphic)

TRAC reports that a majority — 68.6% — of all migrants held by ICE have no criminal record.

In addition, Texas is the state with the most ICE detainees in Fiscal Year 2022 — a total of 5,863 — followed by Louisiana, Arizona, Georgia and California.

(TRAC Graphic)

In January, migrants held in Texas ICE facilities also had the highest rates of COVID-19 as the omicron variant spread throughout the United States.

TRAC reports that as of Feb. 22, 45% of detained migrants were held in ICE facilities in South Texas including:

  • 1,082 in Pearsall
  • 515 in Dilley
  • 309 in Karnes City
  • 451 in Los Fresnos
  • 275 in Laredo

In addition, 1,055 were held in facilities in and near Houston; 432 in El Paso; 316 in Alvarado outside Fort Worth; and 308 in Taylor, Texas, outside Austin.