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May Day: Immigration activists march for an end to big-tech contracts with ICE

“It’s really important for people to recognize that the companies we use on a day-to-day basis are paying funds to ICE and other agencies,” said Miguel Andrade, communications manager for the advocacy group Juntos.

Michael Wilson of Philadelphia speaks in front of the Frank Rizzo statue during the "End ICE Contracts" May Day solidarity rally in Philadelphia. Wilson is part of the Workers World Party and serves on the steering committee for the Real Justice Coalition.
Michael Wilson of Philadelphia speaks in front of the Frank Rizzo statue during the "End ICE Contracts" May Day solidarity rally in Philadelphia. Wilson is part of the Workers World Party and serves on the steering committee for the Real Justice Coalition.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

A hundred flag-waving demonstrators marched through Center City on Wednesday, protesting against big-tech companies whose products and services can help the government find and deport undocumented immigrants.

The targets included corporate giants, such as Amazon, whose wealth and reach make them a familiar presence in American homes. The protest came as pressure from the public, and even from employees, is increasing on firms to act ethically, particularly in their dealings with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.

“It’s really important for people to recognize that the companies we use on a day-to-day basis" are getting funds from ICE and other agencies, said Miguel Andrade, communications manager for Juntos, the Latino advocacy group.

The “End ICE Contracts” rally, organized by Abolish ICE Philadelphia, Shut Down Berks, Make the Road Pennsylvania, and Juntos, and timed to International Workers Day, May 1, began mid-afternoon at the Octavius V. Catto monument outside Philadelphia’s City Hall. The crowd of protesters moved through the surrounding streets, temporarily blocking traffic to the north and east, stopping along the way for speeches and chants.

“We are not going to tolerate for these businesses to profit off the trauma of black and brown children,” said Katia Perez, an organizer with Make the Road Pennsylvania. “We have to shun Amazon for the work that they’re doing.”

March leaders also sought to highlight what they called “corporate collaborators” that provide food and telecommunications services to ICE and to detention centers operated by the agency. Those contracts represent “a huge insult to the undocumented communities here in Philadelphia who are terrorized by ICE every day,” said Deborah Rose of Abolish ICE.

Rose accused Comcast of earning $100,000 from a contract with ICE; a company spokesperson said a response would be forthcoming.

Demonstrators criticized Aramark for allegedly providing food services at detention centers. Said Karen Cutler, company vice president of communications and public affairs, “We do not have any food service contracts with ICE detention centers."

However, a government website that tracks federal spending shows that, since 2005, Aramark has had 108 contracts with the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees multiple immigration agencies. Some of those contracts can represent partial payments of larger agreements.

The company had multiple agreements with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which supervises legal immigration, but only a few, for small amounts, with ICE or with Customs and Border Patrol, another enforcement agency.

Comcast has had 218 contracts with DHS since 2004, according to the federal website, including with USCIS and CBP. It had about seven agreements with ICE, worth less than $32,000 in total, the records show.

The debate over the use of technology in immigration enforcement carries particular weight in Philadelphia, a sanctuary city that hosts one of the nation’s most aggressive ICE offices, and where legal battles swirl around a for-profit company’s plan to house 60 undocumented immigrant children in its Logan neighborhood center.

“Tech is transforming immigration enforcement,” concluded Who’s Behind Ice?, a study released last year by the Immigrant Defense Project, National Immigration Project, and Latino-advocate Mijente. “The immigration and criminal-justice systems have powerful allies in Silicon Valley and Congress, with technology companies playing an increasingly central role in facilitating the expansion and acceleration of arrests, detentions and deportations.”

Amazon Web Services, the study said, has provided cloud infrastructure for programs used by ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. And NEC Corp. contracts with ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol to provide mobile biometric devices and facial-recognition technology.

Amazon has faced criticism for licensing its Rekognition facial-recognition technology to law-enforcement agencies, and for pitching the product to ICE officials last year.

The company would not comment on the Philadelphia protest. It pointed to a recent blog post by Michael Punke, Amazon Web Services vice president of global public policy, who wrote that facial-recognition technology helps law enforcement and government agencies catch criminals, prevent crime, and find missing people. It also can prevent human trafficking and reunite missing children with their parents.

“Our communities are safer and better equipped to help in emergencies when we have the latest technology, including facial recognition technology,” Punke wrote. “In the two-plus years we've been offering Amazon Rekognition, we have not received a single report of misuse by law enforcement.”

It’s important that use of the technology complies with all laws — including the laws that protect civil rights, he wrote.

Many people believe that police and immigration agencies should deploy all available tools to catch and deport people who are in the country without permission — and that there’s nothing wrong with firms building and selling technology that could go to that purpose.

“Most tech and data companies would claim this is ‘strictly business,’ on the grounds that they merely provide information, and it’s up to the other party to decide what to do with it,” said Benjamin Mitchell, who studies data ethics as an assistant professor in the Villanova University Computing Sciences Department. “The moral and ethical proposition, however, is considerably more complex.”

The powerful inference capabilities of big-data sets, once largely aimed at generating advertising revenue, “can be used for all sorts of manipulation and targeting, as demonstrated by Russia's targeting of U.S. elections,” Mitchell said. “Giving U.S. law-enforcement remit to target people using these tools is problematic.”

The Who’s Behind Ice? study said Thompson Reuters Corp. in Canada holds large ICE contracts, and Dev Technology in Maryland is building biometric tracking programs for agency use in Mexico.

Palantir designed what is called the Investigative Case Management system, critical to ICE because it integrates many kinds of public and private data. That data, helpful in building profiles of people, are moving to Amazon Web Services, with Palantir paying Amazon for the use of its servers, MIT Technology Review reported.

“It’s not illegal, but that doesn’t mean it’s right,” said Sundrop Carter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. “We know throughout history that once this technology is being used in one place, it is inevitably going to expand outward. It’s important to have a public conversation about what levels of surveillance do we want, what are we comfortable with, as a society?”