Letter to the Editor: Carnegie Mellon's moral obligation to stand against ICE

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Manuel Brito grew up in a small city in Guatemala, surviving violent persecution as a member of the Ixil community, a Maya indigenous people targeted by a genocidal government operation. He eventually fled after conscripted military service, walking through the desert borderlands and making it to Pittsburgh at 20 years old. He reunited with his dad and found steady work.

In 2015, while tracking down an unaccompanied minor in Pittsburgh, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) found Manuel. He was deported back to Guatemala in 2017. Two years later, Manuel Brito was found murdered on the side of the road.

In Jan. 2018, ICE arrested an individual at Union Grill in a “targeted enforcement operation.” Every week, around 35 undocumented immigrants are targeted and deported in Pittsburgh.

Carnegie Mellon’s proximity to these stories is not just the walk to Union Grill or the short distance to the Berks County Family Detention Center. Two pipelines are happening in our community: one that deports people to abuse and death, and one that sends students to build that very deportation pipeline.

Technology makes this pipeline deadly and invasive. It enables ICE, a federal law enforcement agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to obtain the location, detain, and deport undocumented immigrants.

The Trump administration has made drastic changes since Jan. 2017 to how ICE performs detentions and deportations. These changes include an increase in the number of raids, the length of detention time, and the number of immigrant detainees without criminal records.

Under executive orders and political pressure to deport, ICE relies on technological augmentation more than ever. By establishing billion-dollar contracts with software companies, ICE uses these tools to process, track, and target data from undocumented immigrants, especially from those with elapsed visas and from those with families and homes in the United States.

Palantir is one of the key technology providers enabling ICE to carry out mass raids, detentions, and deportations at unprecedented rates. Palantir sells two technological tools to ICE. The first, Investigative Case Management (ICM), is “mission critical.” According to official government records, it was used at the border to investigate the families and sponsors of children who crossed the border alone. The operation is designed to dissuade children from joining their families in the United States, and it resulted in the arrests of at least 443 people over 90 days.

Palantir’s second tool, FALCON, is used by ICE agents to carry out workplace raids. This technology enabled these raids to increase by 650 percent during President Trump’s first year in office, leading to thousands of undocumented immigrants being arrested and subsequently deported. On Aug. 7, 2019, FALCON enabled the largest workplace raid in Mississippi. ICE agents arrested 689 people en masse, leaving hundreds of children to come home to find their parents missing. At least two children were left unaccompanied for eight days because both of their parents were arrested and detained by ICE.

On two separate occasions last year, Palantir has come to campus to recruit. The first was a secretive session organized by the School of Computer Science on Oct. 2nd, 2019. The second was an alumni recruiting talk as a part of the Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) Privacy Seminar series. Only five out of the 60 students present at the Privacy Seminar knew what ICE was, despite being recruited to join a company that enabled ICE deportation work on immigrant communities. Many of these students being recruited were international students who also face greater vulnerability in workplaces with work sponsorship. The Carnegie Mellon University community, as well as international students across the U.S., deserve universities that serve as safe spaces from the terror of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

This responsibility is even more important in light of recent news of Iranian students being deported following the U.S.-Iranian military escalation in early Jan., and ICE beginning workplace visits for some students participating in the federal Optional Practical Training program: a program that allows those with student visas to take temporary jobs related to their academic studies.

At Carnegie Mellon, 338 students have signed a petition as a part of Mijente's #NoTechForICE campaign, and 39 faculty and staff have signed a petition citing they strongly object to Palantir's presence on our campus. Carnegie Mellon students have expressed their outrage with Palantir's presence on our campus multiple times, gaining broad community support from student groups, nonprofits, and organizations working with immigrants and refugees. Carnegie Mellon University hosting a company that actively develops tools enabling mass raids, detentions, deportations, and family separation is not only harmful, but in direct violation of the university's statement of support for DACA students.

Additionally, as a charter member of the Public Interest Technology University Network, Carnegie Mellon University has pledged “to consider, evaluate, and consciously address the way that new technologies impact the world from a social, political, and economic perspective.” There is no better opportunity to demonstrate an awareness of technology's societal impact than to stop actively encouraging a pipeline that sends students to work for inherently harmful companies. The first steps towards this would be to stop inviting Palantir onto our campus or granting Palantir recruiting space, release an official statement pledging to cease all relations with the company, and actively support marginalized communities with scholarships, resources, more student liaisons, and immigration support.

As a Carnegie Mellon University representative would certainly state — as they have in the past — this university supports “freedom of speech.” Does this university also support harm reduction? Does this university also take responsibility to act in response to human rights abuses?

When it comes to choice, undocumented immigrants do not ask to be surveilled, targeted, and deported. They do not choose to be held in cages, separated from their families, left to wait for a court case that may never come. They do not choose to get their rights violated every single day.

As members of the Carnegie Mellon community, we should not be giving a platform to the work of family separation, migrant detention, and human rights violations. Carnegie Mellon must stop normalizing and supporting harmful technology development and take responsibility for the impacts of student work, or accept an institutional legacy of harm.

Bonnie Fan (@byfan) is a Master's student studying Public Policy and Management, and Catherine Taipe (@ctaipe) is a sophomore studying International Relations and Politics. Both are members of CMU Against ICE.