Nearly 100 Northeastern University students convened Wednesday to protest their school’s $2.7-million contract helping ICE process data. Students clutched signs reading "Dear Northeastern, we prefer our ICE crushed" and "No ICE at NEU” as they marched around campus chanting, "Say it loud, say it clear, ICE is never welcome here."
Though the contract appears to have gone into effect in September 2016, virtually no student knew about it until TIME published a report on June 27 identifying Northeastern University as one of fifteen organization that have been profiting off contracts from ICE. The Northeastern contract, which expires in August 2021, states that the university will provide ICE with “exploratory methods mapping process services for big data sets” to track potential weapons abroad.
After ICE began separating families trying to enter the U.S., activists have targeted businesses that provide services to ICE — including private prison companies GEO Group and CoreCivic, aerospace company General Dynamics Corp, and Amazon — with claims that they are supporting the agency’s human rights abuses.
But countless colleges, many of which are vocally supportive of immigrant rights, are also taking money from ICE, and students are just beginning to fight back.
After the TIME story about Northeastern was published, local activist Evan Greer demanded an end to the ICE deal in a petition that circulated among Northeastern students and has thus far garnered 2,000 signatures. Within a week, a protest was in the works.
“There's a lot of disgust, anger, and shock. Everyone I talked to was unaware that this partnership existed until the TIME magazine story broke,” Alex Ahmed, a PhD student at the Northeastern College of Computer and Information Science, told The Outline.
Alexandra Fernandez, a second-year law student at Northeastern, said her friends at the school “couldn't believe that a university like Northeastern, that touts itself as being global and inclusive, would collaborate with an agency that is actively terrorizing immigrant communities.” Because the university has recently shown support for immigrants — this year it opened an Immigration Justice Clinic — the news that it works with ICE felt for many like a betrayal.
Northeastern isn't alone. Johns Hopkins University has five ongoing contracts, which total $1.65 million, for providing medical training to ICE agents. On its website, Johns Hopkins characterizes its programs with ICE as “a cooperative relationship for the purpose of improving ICE training and educational programs.” It adds, “All programs support the ICE mission, strategic goals, meet the needs of a diverse and dispersed workforce, and contribute to measurable outcomes and results.”
Johns Hopkins faculty and staff, alarmed by the statement of support for the “ICE mission,” have circulated a petition that urges the university to sever its relationship with the agency. “If our school is to live up to its stated values of free intellectual inquiry, human rights, human flourishing, and ‘knowledge for the world,’ it cannot do so while assisting ICE agents,” the petition states. “Given the extent and extremity of its cruel practices and the scale of ongoing human rights charters which ICE continues to violate, we do not see how in good conscience Johns Hopkins University can collaborate with this organization.”
A university spokesperson told The Outline that the university "provides physician oversight and education for federal personnel who are cross-trained as paramedics and emergency medical technicians" and that, in addition to ICE, the university also trains members of the Secret Service, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The Outline also found that the University of Alabama at Birmingham has a contract with ICE for “analytical services” to the tune of $73,003. And for $51,265, the University of Maryland provides ICE with “Hazmat technician certification and training,” which a university spokesperson noted is also given to agencies like the FBI and the Secret Service. The training, according to the spokesperson, offers officials with “information on how to detect, identify and handle any hazardous substances entering the United States from abroad.”
The Vermont Technical College, part of the Vermont State Colleges, continually signed contracts with ICE since February 2008, most recently for $12,000 in a deal that ended in mid-May. Reached for comment, Vermont Technical College president Patricia Moulton told The Outline that the school offered “leadership and financial accounting training to the employees of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement” and that the contract “falls within the scope of the college’s value to the state in providing workforce training and development to the people of Vermont and the region.”
But many students argue that supporting the agency in any form is by extension supporting its human rights abuses at the border. “I would concede that it would definitely be a much worse situation if Northeastern was doing something directly with the enforcement aspect of ICE,” Northeastern law student Meghan Thomas told The Outline. “Any work with ICE is unconscionable considering everything they're doing right now. The alleged human rights abuses are so bad.”
Northeastern University maintains that its contract with ICE is focused on “data research to prevent the import and export of weapons of mass destruction,” as a spokesperson put it to MassLive — not on finding or providing information about immigrants to the U.S. Glenn Pierce, who heads the project, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that his contract is with ICE only because it is the agency that monitors products going in and out of the U.S.
“It doesn't matter if the research is related to immigration policy or not, it's still fundamentally immoral because it will aid ICE and further their mission,” Ahmed said. “It is impossible to separate the technology from its political and social context. ICE is already using large datasets [like the one Pierce analyzes] to target Black and Brown people.” (Pierce did not respond to a request for comment.)
According to Thomas, the first step is for colleges to be more open about their work with ICE. "I hope at the very least that [Northeastern] would be more transparent about what the contract is really about and answer some more questions about whether this is a contract that can be dropped at all,” Thomas said.
But transparency only goes so far. Citing the agency’s recent actions in detentions and at the border, Thomas told The Outline, “Until they show signs of stopping, collaboration with them is wrong.”
Update July 14 2018 2:49 pm: A statement from Johns Hopkins was added to the original story.