BURLINGTON — Immigration officials are keeping a close watch on Veronica Morales. Every Monday, she must check in at an office in Burlington. Every Thursday, she waits for hours at home in Lynn in case an immigration contractor drops by. And if that’s not enough, officials attached a GPS device to her ankle.
The single mother from Guatemala has been under 24-hour surveillance because she is one of the federal immigration agency’s new priorities for deportation: the men and women who’ve crossed the border illegally since last year.
But lawyers say the intensive monitoring program, which could dramatically expand next year, is often subjecting asylum seekers to stricter scrutiny than dangerous criminals. The Globe last month reported that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement had released sex offenders and then lost track of them, even as it increased its oversight of immigrants who arrived illegally but have not been charged with crimes.
Two years ago, most immigrants in the “alternatives to detention” program, or ATD, had criminal records or were facing trial. Now, it is the reverse. Of 24,772 immigrants in the program as of mid-May, 15,815 had no criminal record, including 70 percent of those on GPS devices. Federal officials have proposed expanding the program’s daily capacity to 53,000 next year.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Hans Bremer, a Providence immigration lawyer who says he has dozens of clients in the intensive-monitoring program, mostly women from Central America. “I assume every single woman that comes to my office will be on a GPS device. It’s grown exponentially.”
Immigration officials say the monitoring system is cheaper than detention, costing $5.34 per person a day compared with $129.54 for jail.
Officials said the program creates room in immigration jails for criminals, ICE’s top priority, while making sure that immigrants here illegally comply with civil deportation orders. A decade ago, the majority did not.
“The ATD program is used to increase compliance with release conditions, court appearances and final orders of removal while allowing participants to remain in their community as they move through immigration proceedings,” said Jennifer Elzea, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which contracts with BI Inc. of Boulder, Colo., to run the program.
ICE officials say the program is only for adults, and varies on a case-by-case basis. The monitoring could include GPS devices, worn by 1 in 4 in the program, office visits, phone calls, or home visits.
Among the new immigrants in the program is Rosa Maldonado, 39, who said she arrived with her two daughters this year from El Salvador, where they had been increasingly fearful, to join family members in Boston.
She said the GPS device burns her ankle and bruises her skin. Often it screeches in the middle of the night when the battery runs low.
“I begged them not to put it on me,” Maldonado said in an interview.
Officials said those issued the devices are instructed to report any malfunctions.
Many of those wearing the devices, including Ruth Marroquin in East Boston, said they fled violence in Honduras and El Salvador, which have high murder rates.
Marroquin, her husband, and their two children abandoned their house in El Salvador last year days after gang members kidnapped and beat her husband, a taxi driver.
“That’s why we came,” said Marroquin, 33. “If not for that reason, we wouldn’t have left our country.”
Meanwhile, the Globe recently found that ICE has released many sex offenders in the United States without monitoring them as intensely.
Officials said they had to release the criminals because their homelands refused to take them back, and the Supreme Court has said they cannot detain them forever.
But, as the Globe reported in June, ICE also lost track of sex offenders such as Pablo Hernandez, a Cuban citizen who molested a 7-year-old boy in New Jersey, and Phuong Huynh from Vietnam, who raped a woman in Randolph.
After the Globe asked about their cases, police arrested both men for failing to register as sex offenders.
Now, both are free again. Hernandez recently served two weeks in jail in San Diego, and Huynh is awaiting trial in Dorchester.
The contrast outrages advocates for immigrants. Detention Watch Network policy director Mary Small said the organization favors alternatives to detention, such as having immigrants post bond, but expressed concern that ICE is expanding its monitoring system and detention centers at once.
“Rather than an alternative form of detention, it’s an alternative form of profit for the company that runs the program,” Small said.
Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente based in East Boston, said the group has seen more than 50 people with the monitoring devices, mostly women from Central America, including people whose family members had been beaten or killed.
“These are women that are escaping violence, escaping poverty, and the first thing they encounter in the United States is this treatment,” Montes said.
Others say many illegal immigrants also are coming to the United States for economic reasons, competing for jobs with Americans and legal immigrants. They say federal officials should detain immigrants at the border and ensure that they quickly hold asylum hearings instead.
“The ideal way to handle these cases would be to complete them quickly and make a decision on whether or not they qualify for admission within days, not months,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies. “Then you don’t have the need for these expensive and uncomfortable monitoring devices.”
But ICE has been under pressure to reduce the number of detained families.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has urged Congress to spend $122.5 million next fiscal year to dramatically expand the monitoring program for immigrants who pose no threat to public safety. This year so far, ICE has spent $38.2 million on alternatives to detention.
BI, which runs the intensive monitoring program, is a subsidiary of Geo Group, a private company that runs prisons.
But Morales said such monitoring is unnecessary, adding that she has not missed an appointment at BI. One recent day, her daughter snuggled in her lap in the waiting room, Minnie Mouse sandals twinkling.
“We’re not criminals,” Morales, 21, said. “Why are they watching us?”