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Electronic incarceration: How digital surveillance targets immigrants

By Isabella Irtifa | OMC 2024

Abolish ICE Protest by IndivisibleSF on openverse.

‘I felt like less of a person’ says Sarah, a client from the National Immigrant Justice Center about the pain she feels wearing an ankle shackle. Ankle shackles (‘ankle monitors’) are widely used as GPS tracking tools as part of the United States’ Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Alternatives to Detention (ATD) surveillance programme. ICE claims ATD is meant to reduce the number of people held in detention centres and be a ‘more humane’ path for immigrants registered with customs enforcement. However, these alternatives propel a different form of punitive, degrading policies known as electronic incarceration (or e-carceration) that lead to violations of human dignity including stigmatisation, emotional and physical harm, and furthering risks of actual deportation. 

The racialised policy of e-carceration is a continuation of legacies of surveilling Black and brown immigrants, controlling movement, and constructing regimes of deportability and exclusion. To pretend that this programme is more ‘humane’ or anything but the use of the same tactics of racist border securitisation policies is a fallacy. Today, ICE electronically incarcerates approximately 184,000 people through ATD. ICE deportation officers use a so-called ‘risk assessment strategy’ that analyses data ICE collects about immigrants to decide who to detain and who to release under electronic surveillance monitoring. These risk assessments are based on skewed racist perceptions. A Vera Institute of Justice report in 2020 found that Black individuals are twice as likely to be surveilled by electronic monitoring than white individuals.

Ankle shackles are destructive and torturous. Many immigrants report serious mental and psychological issues due to shackling. Some of the shackles release loud alarms when they need to be charged, waking people up in the middle of the night and stigmatising them in public. Wearers report feeling anxiety or post-traumatic stress about the shackle, which if not charged properly could lead to a call or visit from ICE and potential consequences for the wearer for non-compliance, including detention/deportation. Ankle shackles have also been known to malfunction often, leading to missed check-ins in individual immigration cases, and false flags to ICE that individuals have violated conditions of ATD which has serious consequences and can risk a person’s immigration status in the US. In a study conducted in 2021, 80% of immigrants reported that they experienced technical difficulties with their ankle shackle. Measuring compliance rates with ankle shackling puts the onus on individuals rather than addressing the structural failures of an unjust immigration system that cannot be reformed.

A majority of wearers also experience physical harms from the shackle, including cramping, lack of circulation, and allergic reactions, with some reports of shackles even bursting into flames leaving people with permanent scarring and burns.

Ankle shackling by design is also used to alienate immigrants from their communities. The physical restrictions placed on wearers prevents them from spending time with their loved ones. Wearers have reported missing important family events because of the GPS restrictions on movement. ICE sets parameters for how far someone can travel, with some people being prohibited from going further than 75 miles from their home or not being permitted to leave the state. The distress often spreads beyond the individual, as other immigrants may not want to be around someone with a shackle for fear of being discovered by ICE, as its GPS tracking system has been used to arrest other undocumented individuals before. Many immigrants report employers and community members also discriminating against them for the criminal stigma associated with wearing an ankle shackle, exacerbating xenophobic realities. 

The ATD programme and its use of ankle shackles reifies the United States’ white supremacist laws and structural violence of controlling movement, enslavement, and bolstering of border imperialism policies. The ATD programme should not be considered an alternative to detention, but an alternative to freedom. ATD is not focused on ensuring persons are released with dignity and instead is a humiliating tool used to surveil immigrant communities. The focus should instead be about abolishing ICE and all immigrant detention and surveillance. Ending shackling is a matter of racial, economic, and health justice.  

Isabella Irtifa is a bi-racial second-generation immigrant, community organiser, and PhD student at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Her research focuses on the intersection of border abolition and critical race theory. She is committed to building communities of care through organising against the impacts of settler colonialism and state violence. Isabella graduated with her masters from the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, and holds a bachelor's degree in Sociology and Ethnic Studies. Her work can be found in The Sociological Review Magazine, UN Women reports, and Berkeley Journal of Sociology, among others. 


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