Why Reporting on Undocumented Immigrants Tethered to ICE Is Challenging

By: Ryan Katz

Courts Immigration Interagency Collaboration September 15, 2015

Over the last three decades, the U.S. government has dramatically expanded the jails and jail-like facilities where it incarcerates undocumented immigrants as they await a determination of their legal status.

Ever since, detainees have complained of terrible food, low wages, and abuses from guards. Local governments often rent local jail beds to ICE, despite the fact that ICE’s supervising agency published a report declaring county jails “the most problematic facilities for immigrant detention.”

Efforts at meaningful reform have punctuated multiple presidential administrations. One such attempt coalesced into Alternatives to Detention, a program run by a private contractor that was paid tens of millions by ICE to provide alternatives in lieu of incarceration. One alternative, GPS ankle monitors, has proven especially controversial. In theory, the practice is cheaper and could lessen reliance on detention. But what’s the actual impact on the more than 36,000 undocumented immigrants who wear ankle monitors?

To find out, at first I looked online—but I found very little that spoke of the actual experience of wearing an ankle monitor. Not surprisingly, most people—documented or undocumented—don’t broadcast having an ankle monitor. I’d later hear that’s mostly because of the stigma of wearing one. In reporting my piece for the podcast 70 Million, I heard anecdotes of a neighbor calling their landlord to get an undocumented person with an ankle monitor evicted and of sales staff at a superstore following an undocumented person with an ankle monitor to make sure they didn’t steal anything.

I then took a more hands-on approach and called immigration attorneys. One connected me to his client, Marvin Franco.

I met Marvin at his apartment in East Palo Alto, CA. He told me how he and his family escaped gang threats in El Salvador, only to be detained in the United States. Marvin said the days in the detention center near Oakland were some of the hardest he’d ever known, separated from his wife and daughter.

When he got out, ICE required him to wear an ankle monitor. As we spoke, Marvin motioned to an electrical outlet in the wall. He’d leave the bracelet charging all night so it could last a full day in his job as a gardener. But he couldn’t move while asleep, or it would disconnect from the wall.

“It was very, very difficult to have a monitor,” he said. “It’s something inhuman. We’re not animals.”

I found that folks like Marvin craved for their stories to be told—and have them told the right way. They wanted every aspect of ankle monitors explored. In case the obvious needs to be stated: undocumented immigrants are not one monolithic group with a singular opinion. For instance, whereas most I talked to would rather wear the ankle bracelet over being incarcerated, one man found the monitor so stressful that he actually preferred detention.

The same couldn’t be said of the companies that placed undocumented folks in ankle monitors. I never received responses from GEO Group or Libre By Nexus following my requests for data or for comment on my reporting.

Instead, I relied on what was publicly available, like dull quarterly earnings conference calls. In order to stay positive for their investors, executives celebrated profits from incarcerating more undocumented individuals, by couching it in business jargon. “We expect the utilization of the [ankle monitor] program to remain stable in 2018,” said one GEO executive in 2017’s fourth quarter call.

To learn more about what it’s like to live with an ankle bracelet strapped to your leg, I reviewed documents provided by immigrants or their attorneys. The paperwork given to them by BI Inc., the subsidiary of GEO that runs the Alternatives to Detention program on behalf of ICE, opens with the following:

The GPS bracelet will not shock you.

The GPS bracelet is water resistant – you may shower/bathe as normal.

Charging a battery only takes 90 minutes.

But Marvin, along with other undocumented immigrants with ankle monitors I interviewed, said these directions can be inaccurate. The bracelet is often quite heavy, causing rashes. It’s been known to burn immigrants. Floricel Liborio Ramos, who spent 11 months in detention and then had to wear an ankle monitor, told me she couldn’t shower because the ankle monitor would start vibrating at random times or not work at all.

Marvin ended up wearing the bracelet for more than a year. Still, in order to be safe in the United States, he said he’d do it again. “In the end, it didn’t matter to me whether they put three or four ankle monitors on me, if I could be with my family.”

Ryan Katz is a reporter based in Austin whose work has appeared in ProPublica, Esquire, Topic, and The Daily Beast. For 70 Million, he reported on ankle monitors, devices that for-profit companies are contracting out to ICE to track undocumented immigrants. The open-source podcast is from Lantigua Williams & Co., and made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.