Violations of Human Rights in the U.S.
Federal Enforcers Manipulate “Threat Algorithm” to Justify Mass Detention
In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a statement November 29 saying it will begin implementation of the “Guidelines for the Enforcement of Civil Immigration Law.”
DHS controls both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). DHS Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, said, “Today is an important step forward in ensuring that our workforce is empowered to exercise its prosecutorial discretion and focus its enforcement efforts on those who pose a threat to our national security, public safety, and border security.”
“DHS will carry out our mission to safeguard our country justly and humanely. In making our enforcement decisions, we will focus our efforts on the greatest threats while also recognizing that the majority of undocumented noncitizens, who have been here for many years and who have contributed positively to our country’s well-being, are not priorities for removal,” he added. According to what he said, there is supposed to be a “thorough and case-by-case assessment of whether enforcement action is warranted.”
While claiming the guidelines will give rise to more just and humane treatment — and not focus on workers and their families as has been the case — DHS leaves out that the algorithms used to determine a “threat” are designed to overwhelmingly impose detention and eliminate a case-by-case assessment. For example, between 2017 and 2019, in ICE’s New York field office alone, more than 97 per cent of people were detained using the algorithm’s “threat” assessment. DHS has reported that 63 per cent of people who are not subject to mandatory detention (such as for violent felony convictions) and had a special vulnerability that counseled their release were still ordered detained. Basically, the information fed into the algorithm guarantees that the vast majority will be assessed as a “risk” or “threat” and detained and/or deported.
ICE’s national network of detention facilities, many of them privately run, now hold more than 22,000 people, including many women, children and even babies. Its ballooning electronic monitoring program, said to be an “alternative,” keeps close to 132,000 people under constant surveillance.
ICE’s “Risk Classification Assessment” (RCA) is an algorithmic tool that imposes detention and feeds ICE’s electronic monitoring program. ICE uses the RCA to create a false distinction between “safe” and “dangerous” immigrants, said to pose a “threat.” The new guidelines further perpetuate this false notion, even though DHS admits, “the majority of undocumented noncitizens are not priorities for removal” and “have contributed positively to our country’s well-being.”
The recent exposure of the use of algorithms by Facebook and Twitter to promote divisive and racist content readily shows how easy it is for algorithms to be used to provide the false results desired. Those algorithms used by the state are no different and involve far more state-organized racism and criminality, in this case by unjustly targeting immigrants and refugees, especially those from Mexico, Central America and Haiti.
ICE’s methods of predicting future “risk,” using algorithms they create, are a main part of their detention and deportation machine. Congress now also appears ready to increase funding for expanding ICE’s “risk assessment” program.
From the Start, Algorithm Detained 91 Per Cent
ICE developed the RCA between 2009 and 2012. The agency contracted IBM for $7.6 million to create the Automated Threat Prioritization, which formed the technical foundation of the RCA. It was said that it would limit ICE’s detention capabilities but it has done the opposite. This was known early on. The first year of its national implementation by the Obama administration confirmed that of all the individuals run through the RCA, the tool recommended for release a mere one per cent of those subject to it, while 91 per cent ended up detained. DHS’s own internal watchdog identified problems, noting that the RCA was “time consuming, resource intensive, and not effective in determining [whom] to release or under what conditions.” It has been known for years that it is rigged toward detention, yet it is being expanded.
ICE analyzes “risk to public safety” by ranking various factors including previous charges or convictions (including those for traffic violations or parking tickets and other minor misdemeanors), by their “severity.” ICE has full discretion to alter the severity score for a broad range of charges. Given the racist nature of charges and arrests by governments at all levels, such as for non-violent possession of marijuana, the charges an individual may have on their record, even if eventually dismissed or they are found not guilty, as well as convictions in a system where many who are innocent are forced to plea to a lesser charge, are skewed. ICE then further rigs the algorithm with their arbitrary “severity” score. This is especially true for charges that are pending or dropped, which ICE still considers as “risk” factors in the RCA. Keep in mind ICE is supposed to be a civil enforcement agency, primarily focused on the enforcement of civil immigration law, not criminal law.
The score for “risk to public safety” also incorporates information from other databases. These databases may include the National Crime Information Center database, biometric information-sharing databases, and so-called gang databases. Each of these databases imports information from various sources that are riddled with false inputs obtained from racist government practices. For example, gang databases are overwhelmingly composed of Black and Brown youth who are broadly targeted simply for their associates, their tattoos, where they live — and not actual criminal activity. Flagging people as gang members and putting that into the algorithm then produces the result that someone is a “threat.” Both the databases and the RCA lead to the detention of people based on false information and perpetuate the justification that immigrants and refugees are a “threat.”
Consistently since 2014, when “Deporter-in-Chief” Obama announced he would be targeting those who were charged with, among other things, significant misdemeanors, the algorithm has gotten more stringent, resulting in harsher penalization of those with previous charges and convictions. Under the Trump administration, the RCA was changed again so that even those assigned low-risk scores — such as people without criminal records — were detained without bond. The arbitrary and racist nature of the RCA and its promotion of detention have continued and the recent guidelines in no way change this reality.
“Risk” Assessments Perpetuate Racist Incarceration
As experience and facts from across government sectors show, “risk” assessment tools are built to justify incarceration, not to reduce it. The government uses the RCA to reinforce their claim that immigrants need to be assessed for their “dangerousness,” and their mere presence in the country criminalized, even though all of it is contrary to existing U.S. and international law. As with algorithms that are used by children and family services agencies that break apart families, to “predictive” policing that increases policing in Black neighborhoods, “risk” assessments are another way of continuing the government’s racist policing and incarceration practices hiding behind the curtain of “data-driven” technology. Their use lends an air of legitimacy, a claim that decisions are impartial and based on science, while also filling detention centre beds and increasing the profits of private detention monopolies.
As many of the people detained and the many workers and immigrant and human rights advocates have made clear, the RCA with its algorithm has been a failure across administrations resulting in great harm, violence and rights violations against hundreds of thousands of people. The just demand is for an end to detention and deportation and upholding existing U.S. and international law concerning immigrants and refugees. The U.S. instead continues to brutally attack the human rights of all concerned.
Voice of Revolution, newspaper of the U.S. Marxist-Leninist Organization (USMLO)