The Failure of Reuniting Migrant Families

Sep 18, 2019
11:34 AM

Via U.S. Customs and Border Protection (Public Domain)

On June 26, 2018, federal Judge Dana Sabraw of the Southern District of California ordered the stop of most family separations at the US-Mexico border as well as the reunification of families that have been separated, an order the Trump administration has largely ignored.

The Trump administration aggressively argued that the record-keeping task ordered by Sabraw could take many months. In a court declaration, the administration estimated that it would take 100 staffers more than a year to manually go through the files of all 47,000-plus children who passed through Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) custody from June 2017 to June 2018 and see if anything in the files indicate a whether a child was separated from their family.

The administration’s argument appears to suggest that the files are not entered into databases and are mountains of paperwork sitting in file cabinets. The reality, however, is that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and HHS all use elaborate database software from big-tech companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Palantir.

The use of such extensive software systems that are designed for case management and the precise tracking of the locations of migrants contradicts the administration’s argument. In fact, the use of such software allows each department to individually cross-reference cases allowing for locating children and parents leading to the reunification of families.

However, since the administration is using family separations and incarceration as a deterrent, it appears that the real issue lies in the refusal to take action,,maintaining the cruelty of the zero-tolerance policy implemented under Jeff Sessions and enforced by his successors.

Big Tech

In a blog post in January of 2018, Microsoft boasted working with ICE to help the agency “process data on edge devices or utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.” The statement was briefly removed in error after social media users discovered the post. Shortly thereafter, Microsoft updated the statement to include a line attempting to clarify it’s work with the agency.

“In response to questions we want to be clear: Microsoft is not working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or US Customs and Border Protection on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border, and contrary to some speculation, we are not aware of Azure or Azure services being used for this purpose.”

In a later statement, Microsoft said it was “dismayed by the forced separation of children and families at the border” and it has worked for over 20 years to combine technology with the rule of law to ensure that children who are refugees and immigrants can remain with their parents.”

Despite all this controversy, Microsoft still offers its Azure Government products and services to government agencies providing systems that “deliver such services as cloud-based identity and access,” including substantial databases that ease the workload for government employees.

Amazon, similarly to Microsoft, provides cloud services to DHS and ICE. Palantir, a data mining company, designed the Investigative Case Management System (ICM) which has become a critical component of ICE deportation operations. Palantir’s ICM system integrates a vast ecosystem of public and private data to track down immigrants and deport them.

While Palantir says it has nothing to do with ICE deportations, ICE documents reveal that Palantir has been far more involved with the detention and deportation processes DHS and ICE employ. The documents, which were obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation led by the activist group Mijente and the American Immigration Council in partnership with other immigrant rights groups, and published by The Intercept, came from the Homeland Special Investigations Unit.

One particular seven-page report, titled “Unaccompanied Alien Children Human Smuggling Disruption Initiative,” explained the formation of a 90- to 120-day program targeting smugglers who help unaccompanied minors cross the border into the United States. The document outlines a plan for “identification, investigation, and arrest of human smuggling facilitators, including, but not limited to, parents and family members.”

In addition to powering Palantir’s ICM, Amazon Web Services (AWS) hosts DHS’s major immigration-related databases and operations, including the core data systems for US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) and biometric data for 230 million individuals, that include fingerprints, face records, and iris scans, which are playing a growing role in immigration enforcement around the country.

Salesforce also provides U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) with cloud tools such as Salesforce Analytics, Community Cloud and Service Cloud to “manage border activities,” including a large database infrastructure along with intake and management software to manage asylum cases.

“I don’t think there’s gonna be any finish line when it comes to the ethical and humane use of technology. That is, we are in a new world. And how our technology that we’re creating here is gonna be used, whether it’s in the U.S. government or in corporations, well, this all has to be looked at,” Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said in 2018.

The idea of using big-tech to track migrants already in the US, and as they enter the country seeking asylum contradicts what the administration claims it cannot do. The size of the IT staff at DHS, HHS, CBP, USCIS, and ICE collectively, also repudiates the idea that cross-referencing the data is an insurmountable task.

Reunification Failure

According to the ICE documents, after an unaccompanied child is apprehended, law enforcement border teams are instructed to check their database and contact suspected family members or sponsors. If applicable, the documents instruct agents to then “seek charges against the individual(s) and administratively arrest the subjects and anybody encountered during the inquiry who is out of status.”

What has become clear is CBP and ICE have devoted more time to apprehending potential sponsor families —while simultaneously charging the parents of minors seeking asylum and labeling their children as unaccompanied minors— than the government has in trying to reunite families. Actions that have had a chilling effect on the willingness of sponsors to come forward.

“Instead they’re really targeting this low-hanging fruit and using children as a tool for immigration enforcement,” Jennifer Podkul, policy director at Kids In Need of Defense, said in 2017.

In the letter to oversight officials at the Department of Homeland Security, a coalition of immigrant rights groups detailed how ICE and CBP “are using unaccompanied child asylum seekers as bait to prosecute and deport their parents.” In a statement provided to The Intercept, ICE said that in the course of the operation less than ten percent of sponsors without documentation were arrested due to criminal activity.

Tech workers across the country have been calling on their employers to sever ties with ICE and CBP. Hundreds of Microsoft employees called on CEO Satya Nadella to end the company’s contract with ICE. Hundreds of Salesforce employees also called on CEO Mark Benioff to cancel the company’s contract with CBP. This led the CEOs of both companies to make statements about how they don’t support the separation of families at the border. But Palantir owes its existence to government investment. CEO Alex Karp has said, Palantir is “proud that we’re working with the U.S. government.”

If these tech companies were to sever ties with government agencies, as the outrage culture on social media demands, how can we expect to reunite families without the use of technology? As people focus on the negative impacts technology is having on migrants and citizens alike, the government contracts aren’t the issue. It’s how the software is being implemented that should be of concern. Currently, the laws in the US allow for federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to use technology with impunity and very limited oversight.

In addition, if this administration had genuine concerns about migrant children, a government contract to any or all of the above-mentioned companies would quickly solve the problem of reuniting families and finding sponsors for unaccompanied minors. They refuse to.

Because this is about cruelty and nothing else.


Arturo Tha Cuban is a front-line anti-racism activist, essayist and upcoming author who advocates for equality, justice and accountability. He tweets from @ExtremeArturo.