He rushed to a purple backpack sitting behind him and opened the front pocket.
An alarm was sounding on the phone US immigration authorities had given him, and he knew he had to act fast.
He fumbled with the phone for several minutes, struggling to understand the app’s English-language instructions and follow its rules for snapping a selfie.
“Are they going to send me back to Cuba?” he asked, worried he’d be returned to the country he says he fled after facing police persecution.
It’s not clear how many migrants have been loaned phones as part of the program. ICE hasn’t released that data in its regular public updates about the program, and the agency didn’t respond to CNN’s questions about it. But lawyers and advocates who work with migrants told CNN the government-issued phones — which can only be used with the SmartLINK app and can’t make calls or access the internet — are becoming increasingly common.
“We’ve seen a drastic, drastic increase in the use of this technology,” says Javier Hidalgo, an attorney at the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES).
“This is an expansion of how DHS is defining detention,” he says, “and there’s a whole host of issues that come with it.”
Officials argue these forms of monitoring are an effective way to manage cases. But critics on both sides of the immigration debate say the ATD program raises big questions that should concern every American.
The program enrolled about 1,000 people a day
And all that growth, Kocher says, can be attributed to the increasing use of SmartLINK, an app that requires users to send photos of themselves as a form of checking in with authorities.
Currently more than 185,000 people are being monitored by SmartLINK — about three-quarters of those enrolled in the ATD program, ICE says.
In April and May, Kocher says, about 1,000 people a day were being enrolled in the program.
How the cell phones work
When migrants like Joel who are selected for the program are released from custody, ICE says some are loaned devices loaded with SmartLINK installed, unless they have their own smartphones.
The government-issued phones cannot make calls or be used to access the internet, ICE says, beyond using the app for its intended purpose. Migrants who have their own devices are asked to download the app onto their phones.
“Those who do not report,” ICE says, “are subject to arrest and potential removal.”
Joel told CNN he’s currently required to send in a photo to check in weekly. The first time he tried to submit a photo, he received multiple errors, and — at one point — an ominous warning: “two attempts remaining.” After four tries, his photo was accepted and he received a notification that the check-in was complete.
“It scared me,” he said. “I can’t go back to Cuba.”
Hidalgo, who regularly works with asylum-seeking migrants, says many clients have recently reported receiving phones with the SmartLINK app installed.
But the phones, he says, are raising many concerns. Some migrants, he says, have reported difficulties with charging and powering on the devices.
“There’s a fear…that folks are going to miss their check-ins just because of the technology issues,” he says.
“Clients can easily comply with supervision terms,” an information sheet on the site says, “without the hassle of app stores and traditional smart phone functionality and updates.”
The company says it’s a myth that the app frequently malfunctions and causes immigrants to miss check-ins. “An average of 88.4% of SmartLINK check-ins were completed successfully over the last five years,” GEO says.
Immigrant rights advocates say privacy is lost and private companies are profiting
Immigrant rights advocates argue that expanding the alternatives to detention program is creating new problems and raising major privacy concerns.
The organizations argue they first asked for the information via a Freedom of Information Act request in September, and that ICE and DHS did not respond.
“We’re now at this new frontier of immigration enforcement, where digital surveillance plays a huge role and the kind of information that ICE is collecting and the net that they’re casting is so large that the system is looking completely different,” says Cinthya Rodriguez, an organizer for Mijente.
“It’s very unclear to us what information ICE and BI are collecting on immigrants and how that information is being used or could be used,” she says. “That lack of clarity raises alarms about people’s privacy, future uses of this data and the reach of this surveillance dragnet.”
Meanwhile, she says, the program is needlessly causing emotional harm to tens of thousands of people. Some people enrolled in the program, she says, are told their case manager may call them at any point on a given day, making them scared to leave home.
“Imagine an app, it can call you any time, while you’re at work, while you’re cleaning someone’s house. It makes weird sounds. It draws people’s attention,” Zota says.
ICE didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment on the lawsuit. But in a May 23 court filing, the agency asked a judge to dismiss the case, stating that the organizations’ initial FOIA request did not sufficiently describe the records sought and that some information requested may be exempt from disclosure. Government attorneys also denied the lawsuit’s allegations about the program and its impact.
ICE has said it’s “committed to protecting privacy rights, and civil rights and liberties of all participants” in the program, and that a privacy analysis of the program was conducted and approved by DHS.
Conservative critics say releasing migrants provides the wrong incentive
The program has also come under fire from conservative critics, who say they’re worried it gives would-be migrants a greater incentive to take their chances at the border.
“When you start handing out cell phones and say, ‘We’ll buzz you when we need to get in touch with you,’ and then they let them go on their merry way into the interior of the United States, that’s just going to encourage more and more people to come,” says Chris Chmielenski, deputy director of NumbersUSA, an organization that advocates for less immigration.
Instead, Chmielenski says, anyone who crosses the border illegally should be immediately kicked out of the country.
“Then you don’t have to deal with detention centers or alternatives to detention,” he says.
“Do you really believe that mass releasing those who illegally cross our borders does not send the wrong message to human smugglers, cartels and migrants?” he said. “Isn’t this yet another message by this administration that the US will not enforce our immigration laws?”
“No, that is not the message at all,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas responded. “The individuals are in immigration enforcement proceedings. And if their claims for relief under the laws of the United States are not successful, they are subject to removal. And the appearance rate of individuals on our alternatives to detention program have, in fact, increased.”
LaTurner was unconvinced.
“This program, without question,” he said, “is another message that the borders are wide open. Come on in.”
Some say money for the program would be better spent elsewhere
The rapid growth of the program shouldn’t just concern those with ties to the immigration system, says Kocher, who’s also an assistant research professor at Syracuse.
“This technology is expansive,” he says. “And it’s not as if this is going to stop with immigrants either. It could be anyone. It could be having outstanding tickets in your city. It could be students on suspension from school. This technology could be increasingly used by your employer to track what you’re doing at work.”
Opponents of the way US immigration authorities use technology often point out that tools initially deployed as part of immigration enforcement, such as border surveillance, later can end up expanding into other communities and uses.
Kocher and other critics of the alternatives to detention program argue the resources used to fund it could be better spent elsewhere. This fiscal year’s budget includes more than $440 million to fund the program. And officials are requesting $87 million more for next year.
Immigrant rights advocates argue that providing legal representation to those with cases in immigration court would do even more to guarantee that people keep showing up. Immigration restrictionists argue the resources would be better spent on detaining and deporting more migrants who are in the country illegally.
Neither of those options appears to be imminent. But the push to expand alternatives to detention remains a clear priority.
For his part, Joel says he plans to keep using the government-issued phone to check in every week.
He says police persecution and surveillance pushed him to flee Cuba. And in the United States, he says he’s doing everything he can to comply with authorities so he won’t get sent back.
It’s worth it, he says, for the chance to live in a country where there’s more freedom.
CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.