Deported by Silicon Valley
On 7 August 2019, US immigration officers carried out the biggest workplace raid in recent history, arresting 680 men and women at chicken processing plants across central Mississippi. Children came home from school to find their parents gone; one pair of siblings, aged 12 and 14, were reportedly left alone for eight days after both their mother and father were arrested.
The undocumented workers, who mostly hailed from Mexico and Central America, now face deportation and, in some cases, federal prosecution. Nearly half a year later, most are still awaiting a decision on their immigration cases. The ‘lucky’ ones have been released with ankle monitors, among them a 58-year-old Guatemalan woman who has lived in the US for two decades. But many others have been held in detention facilities since their arrest.
Workplace raids are nothing new for immigrant communities in the US. A hallmark of the George W Bush administration, they declined under Barack Obama and are back with a vengeance under Donald Trump. But the sheer scale and sophistication of the Mississippi round-up – half-enforcement, half-spectacle – mark it out. This time around, immigration authorities have access to sophisticated technology that supercharges the state’s ability to conduct a sting like this one.
A custom-built ‘tipline’
According to a federal search warrant analysed by the immigrant rights group , Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used several tactics to zero in on the chicken plants before carrying out the raids, including a ‘tipline’ custom-built for ICE by the Silicon Valley data analytics firm Palantir. Homeland Security Investigations, the division of ICE responsible for international criminal investigations – and for workplace raids – encourages people to send tips about ‘suspected criminal activity’ online and by phone. Palantir compiles and maps out the data from these tips to help ICE agents look for patterns and plan raids.
The tipline is just one of several pieces of software developed by Palantir for ICE. Since 2014, Palantir has also helped to run the agency’s Investigative Case Management System, a powerful search engine that aggregates information from hundreds of databases at once, to help officers conduct investigations. Palantir’s latest contract, which covers work till September 2020, is worth upwards of $49 million.
For the past year, Mijente has been sounding the alarm over Palantir’s work with ICE and attempting to pressure the company into dropping its lucrative contracts. In the wake of the devastating Mississippi raids, the grassroots organization is ramping up its efforts by partnering with student organizations across the country in the hope of depriving Palantir of a key resource: a crop of fresh, young labour.
So far, more than 1,200 students from universities across the country have pledged to boycott the company until it drops its contracts with ICE. ‘We will not accept jobs at Palantir while the company is engaged in the business of deportation,’ read the letter, which was signed by students at 17 universities including Stanford, a prestigious Californian college that functions more like a tech incubator than an institute for higher learning. (Palantir founder Peter Thiel, who served as an adviser to Trump between late 2016 and early 2017, attended Stanford as both an undergraduate and a law student.)
Palantir, which was founded as an intelligence platform in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks with $2 million in seed funding from the CIA, hasn’t shown any sign of listening to Mijente’s demands. Nor did it respond to dissent within its own ranks when more than 200 employees asked the company to drop the ICE contracts – or at least to donate the profits to immigrant support groups.
Student activists hope the company will be swayed by opposition from thousands of prospective employees. Protesters at elite universities – including Brown and the University of California, Berkeley – haven’t just denounced Palantir; they’ve driven the company off their campuses.
‘We’ve started to realize the tremendous potential student organizing has in this particular fight,’ says Jacinta Gonzalez, a field director with Mijente. In September, Palantir cancelled a session for students in the electrical engineering and computer science department at UC Berkeley, which receives $20,000 per year from Palantir to secure access to the university’s students. Vox.com reported that a similar partnership with Brown’s was ‘paused’ after students began voicing their objections.
‘The movement is definitely growing,’ says Bonnie Fan, a student organizer with the UC Berkeley-based group. ‘And we’re going to keep increasing the pressure.’
Invasive data scraping
Palantir – which did not respond to New Internationalist’s request for comment – has repeatedly denied that its technologies are used to arrest immigrants or to break up families.
But in July, the public radio station WNYC revealed that Palantir’s FALCON mobile application, another data aggregator, was used to help carry out workplace raids in 2018. And while ICE agents may not be using Palantir’s technology to conduct all of their arrests, undocumented immigrants can wind up on immigration authorities’ radar because of data collected and scraped by Palantir.
Police across the country are using Palantir technology to monitor people, particularly people of colour, who they suspect of criminal activity. In August, VICE magazine obtained Palantir’s user manual for police in California, which shows how the company gathers data from disparate sources – like banks, daycare centres and motor-vehicle records – and then uses it to keep tabs on criminal suspects. Just living in a place where gang members operate can be enough to cast undocumented immigrants as ‘suspects’, and they then become targets of ICE.
Palantir isn’t the only data company implicated in the arrest and deportation of immigrants – either directly or indirectly. The firm’s servers are hosted on Amazon Web Services (cloud computing), for example. Meanwhile, the Canada-based media conglomerate Thomson Reuters runs CLEAR, another massive database that ICE has described as ‘mission critical’, according to The New York Times.
Gonzalez explains that Mijente targets Palantir because of the scope and scale of its ICE contracts. ‘Its business model represents one of the most concerning trends we’ve seen in Silicon Valley,’ she says. ‘They are developing very sophisticated technologies for agencies with no public oversight or accountability to human rights.’
Student organizers are trying to educate their classmates. ‘We’d be like, “They’re complicit in aiding the government in doing these actions”,’ says Jeremy Carballo Pineda, who recently handed out fliers at a Palantir panel at Duke University. ‘And their response would be, “Yeah, but they pay 40 bucks an hour”. At that point it becomes a question of what value you put on human life. If that’s 40 bucks an hour, then I don’t really know how to change [your] mind.’
Gaby Del Valle is a Brooklyn-based reporter covering immigration.