St. Louis asylum seekers demand end to abuse and monitoring by ICE contractor
Just one block away from CityPark in St. Louis’ Downtown West neighborhood is an office building where workers help the U.S. government surveil immigrants who are seeking asylum in the United States.
Several dozen St. Louis asylum seekers and their advocates held a protest outside the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program office Monday morning. They held signs, chanted and announced demands for reforms to the way the program monitors asylum seekers.
One of those demands is that people who are seeking asylum not be required to wear ankle monitors.
“The truth is, it’s very uncomfortable,” said Adelaida. “Physically my foot was left marked, and there were things that I could not do.”
Adelaida is a 42-year-old asylum seeker from Guatemala. St. Louis Public Radio spoke with her through an interpreter and agreed to only use her first name because she has privacy concerns related to her immigration court case.
“When I arrived here I went directly to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and they sent me to ISAP. There's when everything started [with] ISAP treating us badly," she said.
BI Inc., a company owned by GeoGroup, operates the supervision program through a contract with the U.S. government. ICE promotes its Alternatives to Detention Program as a cost-effective way to “ensure compliance with release conditions and provide important case management services for non-detained noncitizens.”
The methods of surveillance vary and include ankle monitors, telephonic reporting and a geolocating mobile app.
Earlier this month, about 281,000 immigrants were enrolled in the Alternatives to Detention Program, down by about 73,000 people since the start of the year. ICE reports that fewer than 20% of those enrolled in the program are required to wear ankle monitors.
Adelaida, who attended the protest outside the ISAP office, was forced to wear an ankle monitor for more than a year. She explained that the large device caused her to have an accident at a construction job and that the stress of wearing it caused her to lose hair. It also affected the relationship with her children, who are now ages 8 and 4.
“My kids would say things like, ‘Oh Mommy, why do you have that big thing on your feet,’” she said.
Another local asylum seeker who attended the protest, Allan, is a 27-year-old father of three who came from Honduras. He previously wore an ankle monitor and was required to wear one again because he was accused of missing appointments via calls and home visits.
Allan said he’s tried to follow the program’s rules, but instead, must wear an ankle monitor.
“I’ve always been conscious of when my appointments have been. I don’t know why they’re telling me that I have so many absences,” he said through an interpreter. “Not having an ankle monitor is important. It’s necessary because you walk into a store, they look at you with the ankle monitor and think that you’re dangerous. I’m not a dangerous person.”
Allan also said ISAP is verbally abusive and mistreats asylum seekers.
“When [an ISAP agent] called me to her office, she spoke to me very strongly: ‘I want you in my office, tomorrow 9 o’clock,’” he recounted. “She said I had to answer her calls because she was my authority, and so I explained to her, ‘I’m working, I have three children, I have to take bread to the table.’”
Allan said he’s been fired from three jobs because of the stringent requirements. His current work with noisy machinery further makes it difficult for him to answer calls on a moment's notice.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the company that operates ISAP wrote that it takes allegations of abuse very seriously and “will investigate the allegation according to established procedures.” The company further stated that it has a grievance process in place for program participants “that is grounded in accessibility, confidentiality, fairness, objectivity, and integrity, without fear of retaliation.”
Adriano Udani, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is skeptical of that response.
“I cast some concern and doubt that they are taking it seriously that their personnel are trained, because that's just not the experience or the reports that Migrantes Unidos and also asylum seekers across the country have experienced,” he said.
Udani, along with Maria Torres Wedding, co-founded Migrantes Unidos in 2019. It’s a mutual support group that includes more than 50 immigrants who have worn ankle monitors. One of the group’s goals is to abolish what it calls “criminalizing practices used by ICE.”
A spokesperson for ICE said the agency was unable to meet St. Louis Public Radio’s deadline for a response but is still gathering information. The company that operates ISAP wrote: “ICE has sole authority for participant placement and termination; BI Incorporated has no authority to make supervision or programming decisions. ICE selects the type of electronic monitoring, the intensity of supervision, and the frequency of reporting.”
A hand-delivered letter to ICE a couple of years ago went unanswered, Udani said.
“I do think we have their attention,” Udani said of ISAP and ICE. “When we got to the protest, we were made aware that ISAP actually closed their offices today. All we want is to meet them and have these conversations with ICE and ISAP to talk about the abuses that Migrantes Unidos and other asylum seekers are seeking.”
In addition to Migrantes Unidos’ demand that ISAP and ICE end the use of ankle monitors, local asylum seekers want their home country passports returned, to be allowed freedom of movement in the U.S., the elimination of home visits during work hours and for verbal abuse and threats to stop.
“I came here seeking asylum. There’s no need to use an ankle monitor or any of the things that they’re doing here,” Adelaida said. “I’m here to follow the rules.”
Brian Munoz contributed to this report.
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