Phones given to US immigrants have limited uses – on May 24, 2023 at 8:52 pm

Quick Bit: CLAIM: The U.S. government gives immigrants who cross the country’s border illegally smartphones with unlimited texting and internet access.

Full Story:

CLAIM: The U.S. government gives immigrants who cross the country’s border illegally smartphones with unlimited texting and internet access.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does give some immigrants phones. However, they can only access an app called SmartLink, which is used to monitor immigrants after they cross the border, according to the agency, the company that makes the phones and an immigration expert. The devices are not connected to a cellular network and cannot be used to browse the internet, make unauthorized phone calls, or access apps other than SmartLink.

THE FACTS: Social media users have in recent days renewed erroneous claims about these phones, which have been used by ICE since 2018.

Posts generally include a video first tweeted by a reporter for the Washington Examiner, who said it shows migrants boarding a flight from Brownsville, Texas, to Dallas. Even though the reporter’s tweet does not mention smartphones, other posts sharing the video do.

“Illegals waiting to fly out of Brownsville to Dallas – paid for by US taxpayers while on their taxpayer paid Galaxy 10 smart phones with unlimited text and internet,” reads one tweet that by Wednesday had received more than 16,000 likes and more than 11,600 shares.

An Instagram post with a similar caption had received more than 16,000 likes.

Immigrants who participate in ICE’s Alternatives to Detention program may receive phones instead of remaining in custody or wearing a tracking device such as an ankle monitor. But these devices have extremely limited uses — not the “unlimited” messaging and web browsing suggested by the posts.

A spokesperson for ICE pointed to the agency’s webpage describing the program, which says certain participants are “issued a device capable solely of running the SmartLINK application” if they don’t have a personal phone that supports the app when they enroll. They must return the device if they acquire their own phone, are reassigned to a different technology or are no longer in the program.

“SmartLINK is intended for the sole purpose of providing immigration compliance and case management services to ATD participants,” the page states. It goes on to explain that this includes verifying the location from which participants complete scheduled check-ins, reminding participants about court hearings and providing a database of community services.

The phones are manufactured by BI Incorporated, an electronic monitoring technologies company. BI is a subsidiary of The GEO Group, a private prison company that runs immigration detention facilities for ICE under other contracts.

Monica Hook, a spokesperson for The GEO Group, told The Associated Press that claims about the phones having unlimited messaging and internet are “categorically false.”

“BI Mobile is a hand-held communications device that comes with the BI SmartLink application pre-installed,” she wrote in an email. “BI Mobile is not a smartphone and does not have the associated capabilities of traditional, consumer smartphones such as browsing the internet, disabling device settings, and unauthorized calls and texts. These devices allow only for program compliance functionality.”

Rebekah Wolf, an expert in immigration detention and border issues who works as a policy counsel at the American Immigration Council, confirmed that these phones are “limited” in their capabilities.

“BI controls what phone numbers it can call, so it’s not just a sort of free for all,” she told the AP. “It has to be Wi-Fi enabled because that’s how SmartLink the app works. But it doesn’t have software on it to, like, go to Google Chrome. Like the entire interface of the phone is just the app. So like, yes, you can call in because you can call your ICE officer.”

Wolf has been to briefings with BI and the Department of Homeland Security where the use of these phones is discussed. She also works with local case management providers who interact directly with immigrants in the Alternatives to Detention program.

More than 257,000 active Alternative to Detention participants were using the SmartLink app at the end of 2022, according to ICE statistics. As of early May 2023, that number had gone down to approximately 224,000. Critics of SmartLink have raised concerns about issues such as privacy and whether the app is necessary for immigrants who have no criminal history, the AP has reported.


This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.

Originally found on AP Read More

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