PolitiFact VA: Wittman mischaracterizes program that tracks undocumented immigrants
Speaker: Rep. Rob Wittman
Statement: “They’re going to be giving these people who come across the border, giving them smartphones.”
Date: April 8
Setting: Radio interview
U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman recently mischaracterized a government tool being used to track people entering the country illegally as a smartphone giveaway.
“They’re going to be giving these people who come across the border, giving them smartphones,” Wittman, R-Va., said during an April 8 radio interview on WRVA. “Listen, I know a lot of people across our district who would like a smartphone.”
Wittman represents Virginia's 1st Congressional District which, in this fall’s election, will extend from Williamsburg and Puquoson north through Westmoreland County. The district will include western Chesterfield County and eastern Hanover County.
Although many of Wittman’s constituents may want a smartphone, they’d probably be disappointed with the ones being distributed to undocumented immigrants. Wittman, along with a number of other conservatives, don’t provide context about their purpose and limited capabilities. Immigration officials issue the phones so they can monitor immigrants released from custody; the phones cannot be used for other purposes, like going on Facebook or calling friends.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told PolitiFact National that the agency gives smartphones to some immigrants who have been detained after entering the country illegally.
The devices do not have the capability to make personal phone calls, check social media or browse the internet, the spokesperson said.
Instead, the phones are preloaded with an application called SmartLINK as a way to track immigrants who have been released from detention and are awaiting a deportation hearing.
SmartLINK is part of ICE's Alternative to Detention program to closely track "non-detained noncitizens at varying levels of supervision, using several different monitoring technologies," ICE’s spokesperson said.
The app requires someone to check in with immigration officials either by uploading a selfie or answering a call from their case manager, according to the Associated Press.
The application was first used in 2018 - during President Donald Trump’s administration - to keep track of about 5,000 people, the AP reported. Now, ICE uses it to keep tabs on more than 125,000 immigrants.
Not all immigrants detained by ICE get a government-issued device, the agency’s spokesperson said.
"If a noncitizen acquires their own personally owned smartphone, the SmartLINK application can be loaded onto that device," the spokesperson said.
SmartLINK was developed by BI Inc., a subsidiary of The GEO Group, a private prison company.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged the smartphones during a briefing on April 8, saying it's one of several ways the government can track someone after being released from detention.
We reached out twice to Wittman’s office for comment and did not get a reply. Similar comments mischaracterizing the tracking program have been made by conservative pundit Nick Adams and by former Trump attorney Jay Sekulow and his son, Jordan. PolitiFact National rated Adams’ comment Half True.
“They’re going to be giving these people who come across the border, giving them smartphones,” Wittman said on radio. “Listen, I know a lot of people across our district who would like a smartphone.”
The smartphones given to some immigrants detained by ICE are used to track them with a preinstalled application after they are released from custody. The phones cannot be used for anything else.
ICE has been using the phones and the tracking application since 2018.
Wittman’s statement is partially accurate, but leaves out important details and context. We rate it Half True.
Andy Nguyen, a contributing writer for PolitiFact National, contributed to this story.
Rob Wittman, WRVA interview, April 8, 2022 (4:44 mark)
PolitiFact, “ Claim about smartphones given to immigrants misses key context: they’re used for tracking,” Aug. 14, 2022
Supreme Court of Virginia, “ Redistricting final order,” Dec. 28, 2021
Associated Press, “ Deportation agents use smartphone app to monitor immigrants,” March 10, 2022