A blog series on the excessive, punitive, and discriminatory use of electronic monitoring in the criminal legal system.

How GPS is Playing a Critical Role for ICE

James Kilgore interviews Daniel Gonzalez on the ever-expanding electronic infrastructure used to monitor migrants (Part One)

MediaJustice
Aug 30 · 6 min read

In recent months ICE has been conducting a huge number of raids, dragging people from their families, often away from communities where they have lived for many years. Part of the technology involved in executing these raids has been the GPS monitors that shackle more than 40,000 individuals under the supervision of ICE. Our project, Challenging E-Carceration (part of the #NoDigitalPrisons campaign) has sought to better understand how ICE is using these GPS devices in their attacks on and management of migrant bodies. Fortunately, we caught up with scholar Daniel Gonzalez, who has been researching all this for several years. Our project director, James Kilgore, had a conversation with Daniel, which we will be sharing in two parts. Here’s Part One:

James Kilgore: In your writing you talk a lot about borders. You seem to be saying that we often have a simplistic understanding of what a border is in the 21st century. Can you explain your understanding of borders?

Daniel Gonzalez: For a long time we have equated borders with walls and fences. I think this is a mistake because it leads us to talk about who belongs in the US in a very limited way. Moreover, it distracts us from other border sites and practices. For me, the border is the physical structures that geographically demarcate a nation-state and the personnel, technologies, practices, and knowledge that enforce immigration and trade policy. More specifically, I focus on a database infrastructure called Investigative Case Management (ICM) that connects all these aspects. ICM — not a wall — is the current border’s backbone.

Looking at this larger border infrastructure reveals the border’s investment in managing people inside the US. Reframing border practices in terms of interior AND exterior management highlights the historic relationship between border politics, racism, and the US’ need for devalued labor. Borders aren’t always about keeping certain people out; rather they can also act as supply chains that funnel in and then monitor a certain kind of (racialized and right-less) labor. While ICM is new, the kind of work the border does now isn’t. For example, photos from the 20th century Bracero program show the US-Mexico border operating like a waiting line: laborers were allowed in at certain times and under specific, terminable conditions.

Even back then migrant laborers were monitored and managed — from the documentation they needed in order to work, the border checkpoints they went through, and the transportation to and from the worksite. At times, they were even forced to live in labor camps. However many migrants fought to improve their conditions and found ways to integrate into US society. The inability to permanently track and manage these workers is one of the reasons why the US government (despite resistance from the agriculture industry) ended the program in the mid-1960s. Now, however, the border can constantly track migrants’ entire lives at home and work. This ensures a precarious migrant labor force and guarantees that migrants will be constantly monitored and managed, limiting resistance and migrants’ ability to improve their conditions. So, if a migrant becomes disruptive or if their labor is no longer needed, then they are easily deportable. Historically, US borders have always been better at monitoring migrants than they have been at denying entry, and focusing on ICM allows us to see how US border policy is currently creating and securing a precarious labor force.

James: I am especially interested in electronic monitoring (EM). From my research, it seems that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses EM differently than law enforcement and the overall criminal legal system. Most people under ICE’s monitoring are not under house arrest, don’t pay user fees and don’t report to a personal supervisor like a probation officer. Even though they are on GPS-enabled monitors that track their location, they don’t seem to be punished for traveling away from home. I am not implying that the use of EM on migrants is not oppressive, but I want to understand why it is different. Do you have some ideas on this? I am especially interested in the ways in which immigrants are criminalized as a result of this practice.

Daniel: This is a question of “target population” and how state institutions understand certain groups of people. Departments of Corrections and pretrial authorities employ EM to geographically contain criminalized people: EM ties people to their houses, severely and constantly limiting mobility. ICE, on the other hand, has a different (but not unrelated) goal — monitoring people’s mobility. DOC uses EM as an extension of mass incarceration. But ICE doesn’t want to completely incarcerate a cheap labor force — it merely wants to keep labor cheap and precarious.

ICE also uses EM to monitor the area that a person is or is not allowed to enter, but this monitoring usually allows for greater mobility than monitoring under DOC. The recent raids suggest that ICE also uses EM to help track a person or group after it is determined that they are disruptive, break the law, use public institutions or services, or when their labor is simply no longer needed. Then, ICE intervenes, detains, and deports. Migrants already enter the US labor force criminalized and with limited rights, and ICE waits to capitalize on that precarity.

Migrants already enter the US labor force criminalized and with limited rights, and ICE waits to capitalize on that precarity.

James: Earlier this month ICE raided seven workplaces in Mississippi and took nearly 700 workers into custody. A number of reports indicated that ICE made use of GPS tracking of location to target workers in the plant. Can you explain how that might have worked and tell us whether this is common practice?

Daniel: Electronic monitoring is a GPS and data-collection technology (often wearable) that records and sends a person’s life-activity patterns — including location-based data — to central information-processing centers, like DHS Fusion Centers. In these centers local, state, and federal agencies ensure the coordination of information and plan action across government institutions. ICE uses this information to make operative decisions, such as locating people who miss a routine check-in. In large-scale raids, however, ICE already has a goal: it is not just responding to a specific infraction; ICE also uses EM data to plan the logistics of the raid.

Considering the frequency of these large-scale workplace raids and the increase in funding DHS spends on these surveillance and information technologies, I think that GPS is playing a critical role for ICE and may play an even larger role in the future. The SmartLINK smartphone app that ICE in Miami is currently using, for example, has taken EM to another level by combining GPS and facial recognition.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the use of GPS to monitor migrants in the workplace is not new. DHS funding documents on prototypes from the early 2000s indicate that employer information was also networked into this migrant management system. These prototypes integrated community-based support programs (noncitizen sponsorship) with EM and provided ICE-contracted caseworkers with access to workplaces, encouraging a conflation of interest between ICE and employers.

Click here to read Part Two of this conversation between James and Daniel.


James Kilgore is a Media Fellow at Media Justice. He directs the Challenging E-Carceration project as part of the #NoDigitalPrisons campaign and was a 2017 Soros Justice Fellow. He is the author of five books, including the award-winning Understanding Mass Incarceration:A People’s Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time. In his community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois he is Co-Director of FirstFollowers Reentry Program.

Daniel Gonzalez is a PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Geographic Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on the science and technologies of racial capitalism, particularly as they pertain to regimes of US border enforcement and immigration management.

#NoDigitalPrisons

A blog series on the excessive, punitive, and discriminatory use of electronic monitoring in the criminal legal system

MediaJustice

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MediaJustice is a national racial justice organizing hub that champions the media and technology rights of communities of color and America's poor.

#NoDigitalPrisons

A blog series on the excessive, punitive, and discriminatory use of electronic monitoring in the criminal legal system

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