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ICE's SmartLINK app tracks migrants by the thousands. Does it work?

Inside look at ICE's SmartLINK app
How ICE tracks thousands of migrants with SmartLINK app 02:46

On an April day in 2022, a Venezuelan migrant stood on the banks of the powerful Rio Grande. He could see his future directly in front of him as he cautiously waded into the currents. With each step, his 6-foot-4-inch frame began to disappear beneath the murky green water.  

"The water was up to my neck," he said. "I held my backpack over my head and my feet could barely touch the ground. … I was afraid that I would be swept away. Once I saw the Border Patrol on the other side, I knew that I had to get there." 

He heard horror stories of this perilous leg of the journey. Last year, more than 700 migrants drowned while trying to cross the river, which snakes nearly 1,900 miles along the U.S. southern border. Border Patrol apprehended him in Del Rio, Texas. He was soaked and exhausted but said he could finally exhale for the first time in three months.  

Once he was processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agent handed him a smartphone. It would become his lifeline while he waited for his immigration court date about his asylum claim. The phone came with an app called SmartLINK, which tracked his location through GPS data and confirmed his identity through facial recognition software. An ICE agent asked him to check in by snapping a photo as confirmation each week.  

 "I had to carry the phone everywhere I went," he said. "When I took the photos, I had to be in the exact place where they wanted me to be. ... They told me that if I lost it, got rid of it, or if it's not charged, that they'd come after me and I'd get into really big problems. ... With the phone, I felt like I was a fugitive you see on the news. I felt like a criminal." 

Transitioning off SmartLINK before going to immigration court 

In 2018, ICE launched SmartLINK as part of its Alternatives to Detention program to monitor migrants it deemed "low risk" to the American public. The app, which costs $4 per migrant per day, is viewed as a cost-effective alternative to detention, which costs roughly $150 per migrant per day, according to the agency. The real cost difference is difficult to estimate, as often, migrants are on monitoring for longer than they are detained. 

"It's really an expansion of monitoring migrants and of migrant surveillance," said Austin Kocher, a research professor with the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, at Syracuse University. "Electronic monitoring really started in the criminal justice system. It was then adopted and taken up by ICE as part of their program." 

As of April 2024, ICE has monitored 779,679 migrants through the app, according to data from the agency. Officials note due to cost, migrants who are compliant with ICE check-ins are often transitioned off the app after an average of 14 to 18 months. Meanwhile, immigration court proceedings can last years.  

In its own report to Congress, ICE admitted it will continue to have challenges reporting on the app's effectiveness because of that gap in time, when migrants are taken off the app but their cases are not resolved.   

ICE's SmartLINK app has expanded amid rise in migrant border-crossings 01:34

Kocher, who has studied whether SmartLINK is effective, said the answer depends on the intended goal of the app. If it is to make sure migrants go to their court hearings, he said, most want to do that already. 

"There's tremendous incentive for them to follow all of the rules, and tremendous disincentive for them to ignore the rules," Kocher said. "Expanding access to legal representation and other kinds of legal support could serve the same purpose." 

According to TRAC, 99% of migrants who have attorneys comply with their requirements. Migrants who fail to check in or respond to ICE agents through SmartLINK are considered absconders. Those cases are then handed over to fugitive units for further action from law enforcement. 

Absconder rates and effectiveness 

ICE Assistant Director for Enforcement Removal Operations Tom Giles points to the absconder rate for migrants on SmartLINK as evidence of the app's effectiveness.  

"Our absconder rate is under 10% for this fiscal year," said Giles. "Our non-detained population has grown over 200%, but really, we haven't gotten the resources to effectively manage that docket the way we would like to. For the cases that are on [SmartLINK], it's been effective for us."  

CBS News asked ICE to provide the absconder rate before SmartLINK to add perspective to the numbers. Spokespeople did not respond with the information by the time this article was published.  

"I just had my backpack full of dreams" 

Two years after his journey from Venezuela, the 34-year-old migrant who spoke to CBS News now lives near the seat of American power: the U.S. Capitol. While Congress debates the future of thousands of migrants, he has a message to the representatives who could likely decide his.  

"The solution isn't opposing immigration," he said. "The solution is creating better laws to solve this problem before it gets worse." 

His case for asylum was dismissed. The next steps toward his "American dream" will be learning whether his request for Temporary Protected Status is approved. Unlike being granted asylum, if he is granted TPS, he would have to re-register in order to maintain this status. TPS does not, however, lead to any lawful permanent resident status. In the meantime, he dreams of launching a restaurant business, learning English, and ultimately calling Washington, D.C. his permanent home.  

"There are a lot of immigrants who have hopes and dreams of coming over to this country because they like this country," he said. "They want to start a new life and for their children to grow up here. They want their children to have a beautiful future here." 

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