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Program to track immigrants grows, drawing scrutiny

Advocates question firm’s methods, especially its use of GPS devices

Norma Urbina, a 40-year-old seamstress from Honduras, has worn a GPS ankle monitor for more than a year, though she has no criminal record.

STEVE HAINES FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Norma Urbina, a 40-year-old seamstress from Honduras, has worn a GPS ankle monitor for more than a year, though she has no criminal record.

BURLINGTON — In a weatherbeaten brick building downstairs from a dentist, the tenants in Suite 1A are carrying out the business of the Department of Homeland Security.

Behind a smoky-glass door, a private company called BI Incorporated monitors immigrants facing deportation with office visits, surprise home inspections, and even GPS devices attached to their ankles, making sure they show up for immigration court or their final departure.

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The program has boomed in recent years as deportations soared, and the White House has proposed expanding such monitoring because it is less expensive and more humane than immigration detention. But advocates for immigrants, who have clamored for alternatives to jail, now say the program has morphed into a profit-driven enterprise that subjects thousands of immigrants to scrutiny usually reserved for serious criminals.

“I don’t know why they put it on me. I’ve done everything they’ve asked,” said Norma Urbina, a petite 40-year-old seamstress from Honduras who has worn a GPS ankle monitor for more than a year, though she has no criminal record. “I have four children. Where am I going to go?”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency in charge of deportations, said the program seeks to compel immigrants to obey court and deportation orders; a decade ago, the vast majority did not. BI said in a recent report that 96 percent of participants attended their final court hearings and 77 percent showed up for deportation.

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An ICE spokesman said federal immigration agents oversee the program and make key decisions, such as whether an immigrant should be supervised by BI or wear an ankle monitor.

“All decisions regarding the level of supervision required for individuals in removal proceedings are made on a case by case basis, in order to ensure that ICE maintains sufficient resources to detain serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a serious or significant threat to public safety,” said ICE spokesman Ross Feinstein.

BI, which stands for Behavioral Interventions, says its program costs less than $8 a day compared with $119 a day to keep an immigrant in jail. In 2009, ICE awarded BI a five-year contract worth $372.8 million.

The Boulder, Colo.-based company is a subsidiary of the Geo Group, which runs private prisons, and its reports portray the company as firm but compassionate, with bilingual staff who refer immigrants to food banks and shelters while ensuring that they comply with the law.

But as BI expanded rapidly in recent years, tracking more than 35,000 immigrants in 2011, advocates and others complained that the program treated immigrants facing civil violations more harshly than criminals. And, they worried that BI had a financial incentive to encourage ICE to heighten the monitoring.

For instance, 29 percent of the 21,000 immigrants in BI’s program wear GPS monitors, while in the criminal system, such intrusive devices are used more sparingly.

In the last year, federal judges ordered fewer than 1 percent of convicted criminals released on supervision to wear the monitors, according to the courts. In Massachusetts, fewer than 3 percent of criminals on probation, including sex offenders by law, and 5 percent of parolees, wear the monitors.

“It’s not appropriate to have intensive supervision and especially GPS devices for people who pose very little flight risk,” said Megan Bremer, a lawyer with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Baltimore. “There are other ways.”

Bremer and others said immigration officials could get results with phone calls, some home visits, and helping immigrants plan to leave the United States. Others also favor referring immigrants to legal aid, transportation, and other services that help them comply with the law.

Advocates for immigrants say the monitoring traumatizes immigrants and their children. Immigrants hide the blinking ankle monitors under their clothes. Winter boots cannot fit over the bulky devices, so some slog through the snow in wet sneakers. At night, they sleep plugged into the wall to charge the devices. Some become withdrawn, even suicidal.

Ralph Isenberg, a Texas real estate developer turned immigration activist, has financed multiple lawsuits against ICE for attaching the monitors to immigrants, calling the practice “cruel and unusual punishment.” He said he is trying to get ICE to remove a GPS device from a disabled woman in Oregon.

“These monitors are the most demeaning, shameful things that I think I’ve ever experienced,” Isenberg said. “These things are not being put on hardened criminals. They’re being put on housewives.”

Others say one solution to the complaints is to deport immigrants faster.

“You get a lawyer and you can delay deportation for years,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform. “There’s absolutely no reason why anybody should feel that we need to apologize to people for keeping track of them, when we know that if you release illegal immigrants unsupervised and unmonitored, chances are you’re never going to see them again.”

But last year, a Rutgers School of Law report found that many immigrants in the alternatives-to-detention program did not even match ICE’s top priorities, which are serious criminals and other threats to public safety.

According to ICE, about 47 percent of the immigrants under BI’s supervision are convicted criminals, while 22 percent have pending charges, though it is unclear if they are traffic violations or serious crimes. The remaining 31 percent have clean records.

On one recent visit to BI’s office in Burlington, a few immigrants sat in the boxy waiting room and waited for an employee to slide open a glass window and call out, “Next.” Immigrants jumped up, disappeared behind a door, and then left within minutes.

The scene is familiar to scores of immigrants caught in the March 2007 immigration raid on a New Bedford defense contractor, who are still pleading their cases six years later. Lawyers say many immigrants fear for their lives if deported to countries such as Honduras, which federal records show now has the highest homicide rate in the world.

Martha, a 32-year-old immigrant caught in the raid, has no criminal record but she travels here twice a month, gets random home visits from BI, and fields a phone call every Friday. She has worn ankle monitors on and off.

And since BI followed ICE from Boston to Burlington, the price of the trip has more than doubled, to $50.

“I do not consider myself a criminal,” said Martha, who asked not to be fully named because gangs have threatened her family in Honduras. “The only bad thing I did was to come to this country to look for something better for me and my family.”

Among the New Bedford immigrants, the monitoring can vary in the same family. Fatima Lopez, a 30-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, says she visits BI twice a year, while her mother goes six times a year.

Urbina, the seamstress from Honduras, is among those immigrants who could have been detained because she skipped her court hearing and was ordered deported a year before she was caught in New Bedford. But she said officials released her on her own recognizance and she has never missed a hearing.

Yet in 2011, a BI official affixed a GPS device to her ankle because her immigration agent said to do it. Once, it sounded an alarm when she was teaching religious classes at church.

“I’m still hoping they will take it off me,” Urbina said. “It’s horrible. When I was in Burlington in a store, people stared at the monitor. A woman grabbed her child and took her away from me. There are people who wonder, ‘What did she do?’ ”

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.
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