It’s not news that the administration has amped up its anti-immigration efforts in President Donald Trump’s second year in office. But he and his White House aren’t the only ones responsible for building the machinery and procedures that arrest, detain and deport undocumented immigrants and their families in the U.S.
Prominent immigration advocates and avid politicos are quick to point out that Trump is only using the features and functions of the same deportation machine that President Barack Obama ― who was labeled the deporter in chief toward the end of his administration ― built over his two terms. And while it’s true that Obama was responsible for some of the most aggressive immigration enforcement tactics this country has ever seen, we now have a whole new group of actors in the game seeking to profit.
Immigration is fast becoming what TechCrunch calls the “hottest new space to disrupt” in the tech industry, with companies lining up to develop applications and software for law enforcement agencies. And if that doesn’t sound troubling to you, then consider how two companies in particular are trying to provide the government with newer and more aggressive tools to aid the Trump administration’s efforts.
Multiple media outlets reported in October that online retail giant Amazon pitched its facial recognition software to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to help the agency “accomplish its mission to protect the United States from cross-border crimes and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety,” agency spokesman Matthew Bourke said. The software, called Rekognition, which the ACLU raised concerns about in May over its potential to automate mass surveillance, has not been submitted for review at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This means there’s a strong possibility Amazon’s software could prompt racial bias against or false identification of those scanned by it. In the case of immigration efforts, this means the wrong people ― whether undocumented immigrants or not ― could be detained by ICE agents.
Of course, government agencies have been using mass surveillance technology on Americans for decades. But this Amazon move feels different. Maybe it’s because the same company you’re trusting to deliver the gifts you bought for your loved ones this holiday season wants to turn around and aid the Trump administration’s unshackled deportation force. But perhaps that’s just yet another perk of your Prime membership?
Americans need to start weighing just how much privacy, security and data they’re willing to surrender to the government’s never-ending war on immigrants and refugees.
And Amazon is only one example of big tech trying to infiltrate the immigration landscape. Tech media outlet The Verge reported at the beginning of this year that ICE collaborated with a contractor called Vigilant Solutions to help the agency track down the residences and workplaces of individual immigrants using its license plate recognition software. In July 2018, The Verge reported that license plate images of cars parked in California shopping centers were being collected and supplied to federal immigration enforcement agencies in hopes of mapping “every place a given license plate has been spotted in the last five years.”
ICE claimed it has no intention to “collect nor contribute any data to a national public or private database through this contract.” But given the agency’s poor record in following protocol (like entering homes without warrants), coupled with lack of federal oversight (Congress hasn’t reviewed ICE’s policies and behavior in years), who on earth would take it at its word? I mean, what could go wrong if a federal agency that has attempted to deport U.S. citizens and abused immigrant detainees is given the technology to track and recognize any immigrant it seeks to deport (or worse, any immigrant it wishes to retaliate against)?
Americans need to start weighing just how much privacy, security and data they’re willing to surrender to the government’s never-ending war on immigrants and refugees ― and how doing so affects (unintentionally or otherwise) the rest of this country’s citizenry. The Department of Homeland Security already uses patchy-at-best software to verify whether immigrants are eligible to work in the U.S., and ICE often utilizes biometric information that has, on more than one occasion, caused officials to nab the wrong suspect. Both of these technological so-called solutions are far from perfect and have been known to incriminate U.S. citizens. But they’ve yet to be adequately fixed. This should raise red flags for all of us when the same federal agencies start seeking supposedly newer and greater tech in the name of making their jobs easier and keeping our communities more secure.
Employees, shareholders and you, the customers of these companies, should be the first to repudiate these attempts to make a quick buck (or million) off the hard-working immigrant families who call this country home. After the new session of Congress kicks off early next year, during every applicable committee hearing, tough questions should be raised regarding the application of and the expenditures related to any technology that ICE acquires before the agency enters into additional agreements with technology companies or its budget is increased. This kind of invasive technology has no place in the hands of power-hungry federal agents who have proved time and again that they are determined to deport immigrants at any cost.
Juan Escalante is an immigrant advocate and online strategist who has been fighting for the Dream Act and pro-immigration policies at all levels of government for the past 10 years.