McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A record number of migrants have been given phones with special applications and other tracking devices to check in with U.S. agencies under the Department of Homeland Security, according to new data.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) of Syracuse University reports that as of Aug. 24, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is monitoring over 316,700 asylum-seekers in the Alternatives to Detention program.

This is the largest number of people ever put in the program, which is monitored by the agency’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division. It’s a 260% increase from those who were in the ATD program in the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2021.

The program “uses technology and case management protocols to monitor noncitizen compliance with final orders of removal or with release conditions while their immigration proceedings are pending on the non-detained docket,” according to ICE.

(TRAC Graphic)
(TRAC Graphic)

The vast majority of asylum-seekers in the ATD program — over 256,000 — have been given SmartLINK applications on special cellphone devices that utilize facial recognition and GPS monitoring.

When requested, migrants must take photos of themselves, which allow ICE managers to track them via GPS.

Most of the migrants given these devices are located in Texas: nearly 45,000 in Harlingen; 32,400 in San Antonio, and over 13,000 in El Paso, according to TRAC data.

The phones do not make calls unless an ICE agent is trying to reach them, and do not allow migrants to look up other information, except for calendar items with dates and times for upcoming court appearances.

A migrant on June 21, 2022, shows a SmartLINK cellphone issued by DHS as they wait for help at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

Early in the summer, a young migrant mother who was receiving transportation help at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen showed Border Report the device she was given

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs the Respite Center, said the phones are not like normal cellphones.

“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 in June.

The migrants often have questions about the phones, or they will share what they have learned about the new sleek, black devices they are holding in their hands, says Andrea Rudnik, a volunteer with Team Brownsville, the nonprofit organization that helps asylum-seekers who have legally been released into the United States by DHS officials.

“They would say, ‘Yes, we have to take a picture of ourselves,’ to send in,” Rudnik said Monday. “And also when we get to where we are going. And the GPS tells them (agents) where they are.”

Team Brownsville assists asylum-seekers who are released by DHS across from the bus station in Brownsville, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

“They seem to respond to it well because it looks like a cellphone but it doesn’t have any capabilities,” Rudnik said.

The number of SmartLink users has increased by over 880% from the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2021 when there were only 26,000 asylum-seekers monitored through these devices, according to ICE.

At that time, there were 28,000 being monitored via GPS, and 32,000 had to telephonically report to ICE agents.

(ICE graphic)

Proponents say the program saves taxpayer funds and is far less costly than detention. It also allows migrants greater emotional and physical freedoms and is less harmful than being incarcerated, they say.

ICE says that on average, one ATD case manager oversees about 125 ATD participants. The monitoring cost per day is about $4.36 in the ATD program, as opposed to $140 per day to hold someone in detention.

Aside from SmartLINK monitoring, there are 41,000 asylum-seekers currently being monitored via GPS ankle bracelets, and 20,000 via telephonic reporting, according to TRAC data.