New wrist-worn GPS tracking devices are being issued to more asylum seekers

HARLINGEN, Texas (Border Report) – A new, lighter GPS device that resembles a watch for tracking migrants is being issued with increasing frequency by immigration courts.

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The Veri-Watch system, administered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has grown from a pilot project with just 50 participants to nearly 3,000 in the past year alone, according to new data from Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

The number of these wrist-worn devices is small compared to the 155,000 SmartLINK smartphone apps currently tracking migrants across the country, but the TRAC data shows a new trend among courts – particularly in South Texas – to push out this new tracking technology.

(TRAC graphic)

Nearly 500 of these wrist devices have been issued by U.S. immigration courts in Harlingen, Texas, TRAC reports. The number of devices issued nationwide has risen to more than 800 since early May.

The change came after criticism of SmartLINK increased due to erroneous reports that the agency was issuing fully functional smartphones to migrants.

A migrant displays a government-issued cellphone with a SmartLINK app installed that tracks her location and allows her to communicate only with U.S. immigration authorities at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, on June 21, 2022. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

“ICE’s increasing use of VeriWatch is reflected across the country,” TRAC says.

Following Harlingen, Seattle and Los Angeles each issued over 360 of these devices last year.

In total, ICE currently monitors more than 184,000 migrants through the agency's alternatives to detention programs. Devices used for monitoring include the SmartLINK phone app, phone reports, VeriWatch and GPS ankle bracelets.

VeriWatch appears to use the technology of GPS ankle bracelets, but without the bulky and cumbersome hardware that migrant advocates say is difficult for asylum seekers to use and is most noticeable to the public.

A migrant family boards a taxi to the airport after being released by DHS officials on June 24, 2021, in McAllen, Texas. Some released migrants are placed in a monitoring program as an alternative to detention, which may include ankle bracelets and SMARTLink phone monitoring. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photo)

“These wrist-worn GPS monitoring devices would complement existing ATD capabilities for noncitizens who qualify for the non-detention list in a less intrusive manner and increase compliance for participants in the immigration process,” said Corey Price, deputy director of ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, in April 2023 when announcing the new technology and pilot program.

The wrist-worn devices enable location monitoring, facial recognition and have messaging capabilities. They resemble a smartwatch, “but cannot be used for any function other than immigration-related compliance,” ICE explains.

The watches are made by BI Inc. of Boulder, Colorado, and weigh just 60 grams. The devices feature a take-off detection algorithm that uses proximity and other sensors to detect when the watch is taken off. They can also store location points for seven days when there is no cellular connection, and the data will remain even if the battery runs out. According to BI Inc., the watch also has an LCD touchscreen, speaker and alarm, and is available in English and Spanish.

“ICE’s Alternatives to Detention (ATD) programs are designed to ensure compliance with release conditions and provide essential case management services for non-detained noncitizens,” the agency says on its website.

The agency says ATD is more cost-effective than detaining migrants.

According to ICE, conducting ATD costs about $8 per day, while detention costs $150 per day.

The SmartLINK mobile app has been used across the country for several years, but it has come under criticism and there are numerous false reports that the agency issues smartphones to migrants as they cross the border.

The app is just that, and simply allows immigration-related communication between the migrant and ICE officials. The agency sends notifications about upcoming immigration court appointments. Migrants can also upload and send documents to case specialists and officials, who can then message each other directly. According to ICE, migrants can use the app to search a database to find community service providers in their area, such as clothing and food banks.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at

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