McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Department of Homeland Security often releases migrants into the United States after strapping bulky monitors onto their ankles, but as of recent, the agency is tracking the whereabouts of nearly 200,000 asylum-seekers using special cell phones.

These are not normal cell phones in that they cannot receive or make calls other than to organizations that are approved and pre-programmed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

It’s part of the agency’s Alternatives to Detention program, and it’s being used more frequently with migrants who cross the border from Mexico into South Texas.

Despite some recent claims by Republican lawmakers who criticize the loaning out of these devices, DHS screens migrants thoroughly before placing them in the program.

At least 180,000 of these devices have been loaned out to asylum-seekers, according to DHS. And according to congressional testimony this year, it’s saving taxpayers money because it only costs about $4.36 per day to enroll an asylum seeker in the ATD program, as opposed to $140 per day to hold someone in detention.

Two migrant women with babies in arms at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, on June 21, 2022, show U.S. government-issued cellphones they were given by immigration officials to track their whereabouts. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Each device is equipped with a SmartLINK app that allows the migrant to receive texts and emails and access a calendar with immigration court data, as well as ICE regulations that the migrants must follow while they are in the United States.

But it is not connected to the Internet, and it cannot be used for other purposes.

Wendy, from Honduras, was issued a cellphone on June 21, 2022, by U.S. immigration officials to track the whereabouts of her and her 3-year-old daughter. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Border Report was recently shown some of the devices that were given to migrants who were released to the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.

Wendy, a woman from Honduras recently released with her 3-year-old daughter, explained the importance of the new black phone as she gripped it tightly in her hands.

“It is a telephone they gave me for reporting every week, for recording photos of myself to send to immigration officials,” Wendy said in Spanish. “It is only for immigration (officials) nothing more.”

She can speak with an ICE official if they call her but no one else.

Wendy, who did give her or her daughter’s last names, says when she gets a notification she must send in a photo or respond to their request.

The phones use facial recognition to confirm her identity and location monitoring via GPS.

Wendy says her phone usually goes off between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. most mornings, and then she quickly sends in a photo of herself. Sometimes they ask for more data and after she sends it, she says it goes black.

Jose Castillo, 43, arrived from Nicaragua, demonstrates how to set up a handheld device given to him by immigration authorities while waiting to obtain transportation to the San Antonio airport at a warehouse run by the Mission: Border Hope nonprofit group run by the United Methodist Church in Eagle Pass, Texas, May 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of the organization, she says these devices are very restricted in what they can do.

“There’s nothing else in the phone. There’s no way to add anything to the phone. It’s not a normal common phone like you and I have. It’s just simply a device,” Pimentel said.

Pimentel said she views this as a more humane way to treat asylum-seekers and it helps them to organize their immigration court information.

She said she is glad that more are coming in with the phones and fewer are showing up at her facility with ankle monitors.

”It’s a way to monitor where they are and let them know when their next appointment is and when they need to show up. That’s all it is. Instead of wearing an ankle monitor, they have a phone, which I think is more respectful to the individual — that they can have something where the United States can track and see where they are and notify them when and where they need to show up,” Pimentel said.

But during an April 28 House Judiciary Hearing in which Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was questioned for over four hours, a few GOP members criticized the ATD program and asked about federal funds spent on telephone monitoring devices.

As of Monday, nationwide there were 279,483 migrants enrolled in the Alternatives to Detention program, according to data by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University.

(Graphic by TRAC)

According to TRAC data, the ATD program has seen a huge jump in enrollees since September.

TRAC researcher Austin Kocher says the program has expanded rapidly since 2021.

“The biggest growth we’ve seen is in SmartLINK technology where someone has a smartphone and that smartphone itself is linked to ICE and that is used as a case management tool for tracking,” Kocher told Border Report last year.

When selecting migrants for entry in the ATD program, DHS considers their criminal and immigration history; supervision history; family and community ties; status as a caregiver or provider, as well as other humanitarian or medical considerations.

If an individual fails to respond to a SmartLINK app notification they could be subject to re-arrest and removal or deportation proceedings, Kocher said.

Most migrants given the SmartLINK app come through South Texas. As of June 20, there were 39,615 migrants loaned the special phones out of the ICE office in Harlingen, Texas, and 34,115 from the San Antonio office, according to TRAC,