What is Amazon’s role in the US immigration crackdown?

Activists blast tech giant’s business offering cloud services to ICE, the US government agency conducting raids.

Protestors Rally Against Amazon Workplace Conditions At Jeff Bezos'' NYC Apartment
The protest march to CEO Jeff Bezos's condo building in New York City aimed to raise awareness of how Amazon is facilitating surveillance efforts and coincided with Prime Day discounts [Kevin Hagen/Getty Images/AFP]

Immigration activists rallied this week in eight cities – including at the New York City residence of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, delivering 270,000 petitions to demand that the company cut ties with United States immigration authorities.

As Amazon began its two-day annual shopping holiday on Monday, the country was emerging from a tense night of expected raids in urban areas to round up undocumented immigrants across the nation.

How does Amazon support US immigration enforcement?

Activist group Mijente – which is calling for Amazon to “stop powering ICE” – says the cloud-computing behemoth has contracts with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). US authorities manage their immigration caseload with Palantir software that facilitates tracking down would-be deportees. Amazon Web Services hosts these databases, while Palantir provides the computer programmes to organise the data. So, Amazon effectively enables Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain and deport.

“Amazon and Palantir have secured a role as the backbone for the federal government’s immigration and law enforcement dragnet, allowing them to pursue multibillion-dollar government contracts in various agencies at every single level of law enforcement,” says the petition on Mijente’s website.

What is ICE?

ICE is a federal law enforcement agency within DHS that is responsible for managing the federal immigration system. It combats the illegal movement of people and goods and has a division focused solely on deportation: Enforcement and Removal Operations.

What did Trump order ICE to do?

On July 12, US President Donald Trump said that a nationwide wave of raids would happen over the weekend. The arrests were slated to take place in 10 metropolitan areas and net 2,000 migrant parents and children. The goal was to enforce deportation orders against people ineligible to remain in the US, mainly Central Americans who – during the last year – have arrived in significant numbers.

Did the raids succeed?

Publicity around the plans largely stymied ICE raids on Sunday, although Trump on Monday described them as “very successful”. Lawyers and advocates assisting immigrants said scattered raids resulted in few actual arrests. However, the government’s crackdown is not over. ICE said more arrests will occur later in the week. This is an apparent change of DHS tactics to carry out smaller apprehensions over several days.

Protestors Rally Against Amazon Workplace Conditions At Jeff Bezos' NYC Apartment
Some of the signs carried on Monday said ‘We are not criminals’ in Spanish, and pointed to Amazon’s work with ICE [Kevin Hagen/Getty Images/AFP]

What is the role of AI technology?

The Guardian first reported that Amazon is hoping to broaden its DHS partnership to host biometric data for a federal database. This collaboration was the main focus of a rally on Monday in downtown Seattle at the company headquarters, among the handful taking place nationally to coincide with Prime Day. At that gathering, Jennifer Lee of the American Civil Liberties Union said Amazon was pitching its Rekognition facial identification technology that could result in “deportations without due process” and cause immigrant communities to live in fear. But publicly available procurement data indicate that ICE does not yet have a contract in place with Amazon for facial recognition services, an ICE spokesperson told Al Jazeera.

What does the company say?

A spokesperson for Amazon Web Services told Al Jazeera: “Companies and government organizations need to use existing and new technology responsibly and lawfully. There is clearly a need for more clarity from governments on what is acceptable use of AI and ramifications for its misuse, and we’ve provided a proposed legislative framework for this.”

“We remain eager for the government to provide this additional clarity and legislation,” continued the statement, “and will continue to offer our ideas and specific suggestions”.

What do activists think?

In the protest outside Bezos’s luxury apartment building in Manhattan on Monday, Anshu Khadka, an activist with Desis Rising Up and Moving, shouted that “there’s no doorman there” when ICE comes to immigrant homes and workplaces to detain people and deport family members.

Last week, activists disrupted the Amazon Web Services Summit in New York, playing recordings of immigrant families being split up as Amazon Chief Technology Officer Werner Vogels was giving a keynote speech. New York Communities for Change and Make the Road NY were among the groups demonstrating. Some activists are boycotting everything Amazon, which includes Prime Video, Whole Foods, Kindle, and many other popular services.

Protestors Rally Against Amazon Workplace Conditions At Jeff Bezos' NYC Apartment
As a matter of policy, Amazon does not comment specifically on its customer relationships [Kevin Hagen/Getty Images/AFP]

What is Palantir’s role?

Data analytics firm Palantir, based in Palo Alto, California, is best described as a mix between Google and the CIA. It receives taxpayer dollars to provide the algorithms for many government agencies, whether related to counterterrorism or immigration enforcement. But activists recently have drawn attention to how the tech firm sells “mission-critical” tools that ICE uses to populate profiles and plan raids. Palantir’s ICE contract is worth over $51m, according to the federal government. Palantir did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

How does ICE operate?

An ICE spokesperson said that the agency’s “Fugitive Operations teams target and arrest criminal aliens and other individuals who are in violation of our nation’s immigration laws for the safety and security of our communities”. The spokesperson added that 90 percent of those arrested by ICE last year “had either a criminal conviction(s), pending criminal charge(s), were an ICE fugitive, or illegally reentered the country after previously being removed”. The ICE statement also said such individuals are “subject to immigration arrest, detention and – if found removable by final order – removal from the United States”.

Why are activists calling to abolish ICE?

Some members of the US Congress, including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, have proposed that ICE be disbanded. They say a more humane immigration system would be better than Trump’s zero-tolerance policy of criminally prosecuting people who entered the US irregularly or without documents.

The US Border Patrol, which secures American borders, is a unit of Customs and Border Protection – a separate, sister agency of ICE that operates many of the detention centres along the southern border.

Source: Al Jazeera