When Milton Marin Caceres-Molina was arrested in New York for false impersonation—essentially a charge over lying to a police officer about a name or birthdate—his fingerprints showed that he had been deported to his home country of El Salvador in 2010.
But by the time authorities figured out who Caceres-Molina was, he was already gone.
Federal law enforcement officials tried to locate Caceres-Molina based on selfies he posted to Facebook. But when that effort failed, a U.S. Marshal applied for a warrant to authorize the use of a controversial technology to track down Caceres-Molina. Authorities wanted to use a cellphone tower simulator to locate the mobile phone associated with his Facebook account.
They easily tracked Caceres-Molina down, and he was arrested shortly after.
Donald Trump’s Administration pioneered the use of these cellphone tower simulators—a spy tool colloquially known as a “Stingray” that tricks mobile phones into connecting with a fake cell tower to identify the phone’s physical location—to hunt down people accused of low-level immigration offenses. But, according to new court documents obtained by The Daily Beast, Joe Biden’s administration is pressing on with the controversial tool.
The cell tower simulators have already raised privacy concerns among civil liberties advocates. Stingrays are, after all, powerful tools in the federal government’s hands, and there are a host of problematic uses, critics contend, particularly in the absence of a warrant or in the investigation of low-level offenses.
“Cell site simulators are tremendously powerful and invasive surveillance technology,” Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s speech, privacy, and technology project told The Daily Beast. “It’s a positive development that DHS is telling judges what they’re doing and getting search warrants—they did not used to do this.”
“But,” Freed Wessler continued, “if these devices are ever to be used under the system of the constitution, they need to be reserved for the most serious investigations with strict oversight and limitations.”
The Detroit News reported the first known use of a cell site simulator, used to locate and deport Rudy Carcamo-Carranza, a 23-year-old restaurant worker wanted on illegal reentry charges after he was allegedly involved in a car accident and fled the scene.
In 2019, according to reporting from Univision, immigration officials again used a cell site simulator to locate and deport Valente Palacios Tellez, a Mexican immigrant charged with illegal reentry after he returned to the U.S. following deportation and was arrested following a fight outside a restaurant in New York City.
But little is known about other cases in which immigration officials have used the devices.
In documents obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy asserted that immigration officials could use cell site simulators only in the context of a criminal case.
But whether a given immigration violation is treated as a criminal or civil offense has grown increasingly arbitrary, according to Freed Wessler.
“They have said that they do not use these for civil immigration enforcement. The problem is that we’ve had over the past couple decades an incredible criminalization of immigration law,” Freed Wessler said.
While illegal reentry is a crime, federal authorities used to manage the violations through civil immigration enforcement measures. But as immigration has become a more contentious political issue over the past few decades, prosecutors have increasingly opted to charge immigrants with criminal offenses.
In two of the previously known cases involving cell simulators used for immigration enforcement, the suspects attracted attention from federal law enforcement following relatively low-level state level charges.
In the warrant application for Caceres-Molina’s phone location, federal law enforcement note that he’s wanted in his home country of El Salvador on aggravated homicide charges, although the affidavit in support of a criminal complaint against him makes no mention of the charges.
ICE policy for obtaining cell site simulator warrants, as spelled out in the documents obtained by the ACLU, does not restrict the use of cell site simulators to undocumented immigrants charged with additional, non-immigration related offenses.
“If they can go after this guy just based on an arrest warrant for an illegal reentry charge, then there’s nothing binding them from doing the same thing against anybody who could be charged with illegal entry or reentry,” Freed Wessler said.