Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
After the HQ2 cancellation in Queens, Amazon’s connections to federal immigration enforcement are drawing scrutiny and criticism in other cities, too.
When Amazon announced that it would be cancelling plans to build a headquarters in Long Island City last week, among the many groups claiming victory were immigration activists. For them, the fundamental problem with the Amazon deal wasn’t only about the questionable tax incentives or the threats of gentrification. It was also the company’s support of government agencies that round up and deport immigrants.
Amazon is among a few companies that contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). It has pitched both agencies on using its Rekognition facial recognition technology, which would help them identify suspected undocumented immigrants from afar. Privacy advocates have long worried about the biases coded into this technology, and the potential for mass surveillance should it be deployed by law enforcement agencies—especially ones that have already been accused of rights violations. The mega-retailer has also raised concerns because of its other connections to federal law enforcement: Amazon Web Services provides technical support to a number of Department of Homeland Security agencies, as well as the Pentagon.
In Queens—a district where 40 percent of the population are immigrants and more than a quarter are Hispanic—Amazon’s relationship with ICE is a big reason why some local activists are glad the tech company is no longer coming to town. “There are already many immigrants who are afraid to seek help and fight for their rights. We see that Amazon has added to their fear and danger, by collaborating with ICE,” said Bianca McPherson, an organizer with the local advocacy group Queens Neighborhoods United, which fought the Amazon deal.
“For every person who said, ‘Why don’t we try to get more jobs from Amazon?’ we could counter that with, ‘That doesn’t stop them from colluding with ICE,’” added Shrima Pandey, another organizer with Queens Neighborhoods United, in an email to Inequality.org.
Meanwhile, in California, a group of cities are also trying to sever ties with companies like Amazon that cooperate with ICE. Last year, Richmond, California became the first city in the country to consider an ordinance prohibiting the city from working with private companies that share data with ICE or support its “extreme vetting” agenda. (ICE was in the market for software that would scour social media to predict which immigrant or foreign national is likely to become a terrorist, but later backed away from this pursuit).
After Richmond’s city council approved the legislation in June, the city cancelled its contracts with the data analytics company Vigilance Solutions, which has reportedly sold Automated License Plate Reader (ALPR) technology to ICE, again, causing privacy and civil rights advocates to raise alarm.
The man behind the legislation is Brian Hofer, the chair of the City of Oakland Privacy Advisory Commission, who has helped craft several ordinances strengthening privacy protections. Hofer, together with a coalition of Bay Area civil and digital rights organizations called #DeportICE, created this “sanctuary contracting ordinance” to give local governments a means of reducing harm from federal immigration policy. Given that these cities already have various “sanctuary” policies restricting how local governments help ICE, he says, this seemed like the next logical step.
”We just haven’t really had the tools at the local level to put pressure on Trump,” Hofer said. “What we’re trying to do is put the pressure on the private companies that are enabling this activity to take place.”
Richmond’s two-and-a-half page ordinance is also being considered elsewhere in the region—Alameda, Oakland, and Berkeley are weighing similar proposals. If passed, Berkeley’s law would block the city from “entering into, amending, or extending any contract or agreement with contractors who also provide ‘data broker’ or ‘extreme vetting services’ to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” That could include Microsoft and Thompson Reuters, both of which have been criticized, sometimes by their own employees, for contracting with ICE. Berkeley is also considering a blanket boycott of Amazon, and thus Amazon Web Services, which the city currently uses for various computing and infrastructure services.
To counter the Amazon HQ2 pushback, proponents of the deal have usually pointed to the potential economic benefit the company’s expansion would bring local workers. In the case of Berkeley’s ordinance and others like it, the reticence lies elsewhere: Because cities often rely on these powerful data-processing companies for day-to-day functions, the legislation to ban them is not easy to pass.
Dee Williams-Ridley, Berkeley’s city manager, outlined her concerns in two memos to the mayor and the city council, writing that while the city has a commitment to protecting immigrants, the market power of companies like Amazon is so strong that banning them would seriously hinder city operations. One of the city’s websites is hosted on Acquia, which uses AWS to run. Berkeley’s Public Health Clinics use AWS-powered applications to submit medical claims and store secure HIPAA-compliant health information; and the city’s Senior Center registration platform also needs AWS to function. Indeed, Williams-Ridley argued, Berkeley would find it costly and difficult to do legal research, meet financial regulations, apply for grants, and enter police reports without using the offending contractors. (She declined to comment to CityLab directly.)
These challenges speak to just how deeply companies like Amazon have entrenched their services. “What we are running into with the city council … is not so much the economic impact of these companies, it’s a convenience factor,” he told CityLab. “I’m really running into inertia.”
In a letter to the city council shared with CityLab, Hofer responded to the city manager’s claims. Her arguments “are mostly without merit, highly speculative, and lacking in factual support,” he wrote. “Indeed, the ‘objections’ are contradicted by Berkeley’s own policies and procedures and past performance.”
Going cold turkey may be unrealistic, but there are technological alternatives in some cases, according to Hofer. And the ordinance does not require the city to break existing contracts and allows waivers in cases where there aren’t other options. Ultimately, it’s a matter of having the political will to change status quo, he says. “We’ve got to do some hearts-and-minds convincing about taking a principled stance,” Hofer said, “and maybe having to learn a new piece of software if it’s a reasonable alternative.”
This lesser-known wing of the Amazon pushback is joining with calls for accountability from within the company itself. It is also in line with similar divestment campaigns gaining traction across the country, such as cities pulling pension funds from private prison companies, whose resurgence the current administration has fueled. Hofer hopes that the Amazon pushback in Queens will encourage other cities to consider not only how technology companies like Amazon affect local rents and wages, but their larger—albeit indirect—influence on federal policies and practices.
“With this ordinance, I’ve been telling people that we’re not trying to put these private companies out of business,” Hofer said. “We want to change their business practices. That’s the goal.”