BURLINGTON — In a weatherbeaten brick building downstairs from a dentist, the tenants in Suite 1A are carrying out the business of the Department of Homeland Security.
Behind a smoky-glass door, a private company called BI Incorporated monitors immigrants facing deportation with office visits, surprise home inspections, and even GPS devices attached to their ankles, making sure they show up for immigration court or their final departure.
The program has boomed in recent years as deportations soared, and the White House has proposed expanding such monitoring because it is less expensive and more humane than immigration detention. But advocates for immigrants, who have clamored for alternatives to jail, now say the program has morphed into a profit-driven enterprise that subjects thousands of immigrants to scrutiny usually reserved for serious criminals.
“I don’t know why they put it on me. I’ve done everything they’ve asked,” said Norma Urbina, a petite 40-year-old seamstress from Honduras who has worn a GPS ankle monitor for more than a year, though she has no criminal record. “I have four children. Where am I going to go?”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency in charge of deportations, said the program seeks to compel immigrants to obey court and deportation orders; a decade ago, the vast majority did not. BI said in a recent report that 96 percent of participants attended their final court hearings and 77 percent showed up for deportation.
An ICE spokesman said federal immigration agents oversee the program and make key decisions, such as whether an immigrant should be supervised by BI or wear an ankle monitor.
“All decisions regarding the level of supervision required for individuals in removal proceedings are made on a case by case basis, in order to ensure that ICE maintains sufficient resources to detain serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a serious or significant threat to public safety,” said ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein.
BI, which stands for Behavioral Interventions, says its program costs less than $8 a day compared with $119 a day to keep an immigrant in jail. In 2009, ICE awarded BI a five-year contract worth $372.8 million.
The Boulder, Colo.-based company is a subsidiary of the Geo Group, which runs private prisons, and its reports portray the company as firm but compassionate, with bilingual staff who refer immigrants to food banks and shelters while ensuring that they comply with the law.
But as BI expanded rapidly in recent years, tracking more than 35,000 immigrants in 2011, advocates and others complained that the program treated immigrants facing civil violations more harshly than criminals. And, they worried that BI had a financial incentive to encourage ICE to heighten the monitoring.
For instance, 29 percent of the 21,000 immigrants in BI’s program wear GPS monitors, while in the criminal system, such intrusive devices are used more sparingly.
In the last year, federal judges ordered fewer than 1 percent of convicted criminals released on supervision to wear the monitors, according to the courts. In Massachusetts, fewer than 3 percent of criminals on probation, including sex offenders by law, and 5 percent of parolees, wear the monitors.
“It’s not appropriate to have intensive supervision and especially GPS devices for people who pose very little flight risk,” said Megan Bremer, a lawyer with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore. “There are other ways.”
Bremer and others said immigration officials could get results with phone calls, some home visits, and helping immigrants plan to leave the United States. Others also favor referring immigrants to legal aid, transportation, and other services that help them comply with the law.
Advocates for immigrants say the monitoring traumatizes immigrants and their children. Immigrants hide the blinking ankle monitors under their clothes. Winter boots cannot fit over the bulky devices, so some slog through the snow in wet sneakers. At night, they sleep plugged into the wall to charge the devices. Some become withdrawn, even suicidal.
Ralph Isenberg, a Texas real estate developer turned immigration activist, has financed multiple lawsuits against ICE for attaching the monitors to immigrants, calling the practice “cruel and unusual punishment.” He said he is trying to get ICE to remove a GPS device from a disabled woman in Oregon.
“These monitors are the most demeaning, shameful things that I think I’ve ever experienced,” Isenberg said. “These things are not being put on hardened criminals. They’re being put on housewives.”Continued...