Claims of 'free smartphones' for US-bound migrants are misleading

·3-min read

Social media posts and articles claim officials are giving undocumented immigrants free smartphones after they arrive in the United States. This is misleading; Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) does temporarily provide phones to qualified individuals, but the devices are only used to track migrants and inform them about their cases.

"Illegal Immigrants Get Free Smartphones Paid for by US Taxpayers," says a May 12, 2023 headline from the Gateway Pundit, a website that AFP has repeatedly fact-checked for spreading misinformation.

The article accumulated thousands of shares as the US prepared for a rush of migrants along its southern border with Mexico after the May 11 expiration of pandemic-era restrictions.

Similar claims have circulated on Twitter, TikTok, Facebook and other websites. Some share images that purport to show migrants using handsets provided by border officials.

<span>Screenshot of a Gateway Pundit article taken May 15, 2023</span>
Screenshot of a Gateway Pundit article taken May 15, 2023

The posts, which revive claims that have spread online for at least a year, come at a time of heightened political tensions over US border policies. But they are misleading.

An ICE spokesperson told AFP that while migrants do receive handsets in some cases, the devices only have one app that lets the agency track and inform them about court appearances.

The devices are one of the tools in ICE's Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program (archived here), which began in 2004 to keep migrants out of jail while their cases are pending in court. Eligible candidates must be at least 18 years old, at some stage of the immigration process and have a release order or bond from a judge.

Individuals who already have smartphones can download SmartLINK, which provides reminders for upcoming appointments and allows participants to upload and send documents to case specialists. The app, launched in 2018, tracks participants and uses facial recognition technology to verify their identity, prompting privacy concerns and a lawsuit.

SmartLINK "allows supervising officers and case managers to keep participants focused on the conditions of release," ICE said in a statement emailed to AFP.

"Approximately 75 percent of non-citizens enrolled in the ATD program utilize SmartLINK," the agency said.

Eligible individuals without a smartphone "will be issued a SmartLINK-loaded device," according to ICE -- but "the device is locked and is unable to be used other than through the SmartLINK application."

The agency added: "SmartLINK devices must be returned upon the participant's re-assignment to a personal smart device, reassignment to a different technology, or completion of the ATD program. It is important to note the SmartLINK devices are solely limited to the functions assigned for the purposes of participation in ATD. They do not possess call capability or access to internet. The SmartLINK devices can make emergency calls to 911 services only."

ICE said the cost of using the app amounts to less than $8 per day, compared with around $150 per day for detention.

ICE uses other types of technology to keep tabs on immigrants awaiting hearings, including ankle monitors with location tracking.

The agency offered no details on how many people use SmartLINK or other tracking tools, but a Syracuse University research team that collects public records said last year that more than 100,000 were using the app out of nearly 180,000 in the ATD program.

AFP has fact-checked other false and misleading claims about the border here, here and here.