Silas Berkowitz happily worked for Microsoft for nearly five years as Support Lead for Outlook Mobile, training other Microsoft employees to assist customers. But as news began to spread, in the summer of 2018, of the thousands of cases of family separation, as well as the mounting deaths of migrants in ICE custody, Berkowitz was horrified to realize that the company he worked for was providing services directly to ICE.
Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing software was “mission critical” for ICE’s operations, as Berkowitz explained to me, and the agency paid Microsoft nearly $20 million for its use. The software, according to Microsoft’s Azure Global Corporate Vice President Tom Keane, would allow ICE officers to make “more informed decisions faster,” as well as “enabling them to process data on edge devices or utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.” That didn’t sit well with some Microsoft employees, including Berkowitz, and they started to express their dismay.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, in trying to assuage his employees’ concerns, claimed that “Microsoft is not working with the US government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border.” But to Berkowitz, the statement “abdicated responsibility,” and he became so “highly disturbed” with his company that he quit.
Microsoft, however, is not alone in corporate America when it comes to enabling ICE and Customs and Border Protection operations. In fact, corporations like Accenture, Boeing, Elbit, G4S, General Dynamics, IBM, L3 Technologies, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Palantir (with software provided by Amazon), Raytheon, and UNISYS are among the hundreds of companies who are facilitating the migrant detention and deportation machine—and have been raking in, from 2006 to 2018, more than a combined $45 billion, dispersed among nearly 100,000 separate contracts with CBP and ICE. Besides being an enormous expenditure of taxpayer dollars, this sum also represents an unprecedented and ever-increasing reliance on for-profit companies in carrying out the government’s immigration crackdown.
Immigration enforcement budgets have ballooned from $350 million in 1980, to $1.2 billion in 1990, to $9.1 billion in 2003, to a whopping $23.7 billion in 2018, all going into what has become our border industrial complex. Those budgets then annually funnel $2.32 billion back to the private sector through federal immigration, corrections, and detention contracts.
Two new reports, “More than a Wall: Corporate Profiteering and the Militarization of US Borders,” by journalist Todd Miller and released by the Transnational Institute, and “Detained for Profit: Spending Surges Under U.S. Immigration Crackdown,” by Alan Zibel and released by Public Citizen, detail which corporations are benefiting from the border cash cow, as well as how their lobbying efforts are pushing lawmakers to continue funding lucrative immigration enforcement.
As “Detained for Profit” lays out, federal contract revenue for 10 major private corporations has risen 17 percent just since Trump took office, and is more than double what those companies earned in 2013. While the rise began under Obama’s watch, “under Trump, spending has ramped up even more as federal government has pressed ahead with sweeping efforts to constrain the flow of immigration to the United States.”
This system of profiteering off the border industrial complex is abetted by a well-established revolving door between government and the industry. As Miller makes clear in “More than a Wall,” ex-government officials, sometimes top brass, are often either head-hunted by corporations or willingly wade into the quagmire of the lobbying industry themselves. Since 2006, “177 people have gone through the DHS revolving door and 34 have worked both for the House Homeland Security Committee and for a lobbying firm,” the report notes. Just from 2003 to 2017, four CBP commissioners and three DHS secretaries went on to work in homeland security corporations after leaving government.
One of the most striking examples, and not mentioned in the report, is John Kelly, former DHS secretary and then former White House chief of staff—for a while, the so-called “adult in the room”—who joined the board of directors of Caliburn International, the for-profit parent company that runs detention centers for unaccompanied minors, including the “emergency shelter” for kids in Homestead, Florida. The period Kelly was in office, from July 2017 to December 2018, as Think Progress noted, was “a stretch of time that saw the Trump administration’s aggressive tactics against immigrants ramp up,” while, simultaneously, the average length of stay for an unaccompanied child migrant in US custody “skyrocketed.” The company that ran Homestead, a subsidiary of Caliburn, also happened to land a contract, in that same period, for a whopping $222 million.
Earlier this year, Amnesty International detailed the Trump administration’s “attempt to strip away the individual humanity, dignity, and sense of security” of child migrants who were locked up in the for-profit Homestead facility, as their report, “No Home for Children,” explained. Though there remains a 20-day maximum on how long unaccompanied children should be kept in temporary emergency facilities—which was Homestead’s designation—the average length of stay for unaccompanied children in Homestead ranged up to 89 days, while some children spent more than 200 days in the facility. For each child locked up in Homestead, the facility charged the government $750 dollars a day. By this past September, though all the children were transferred out of Homestead in August, the Trump administration has paid more than $33 million dollars to keep the facility running, according to the Miami Herald. Those are spoils used, in part, to pay Kelly.
The border profiteers are also adept at lining politicians’ pockets: The border-security corporate giants, especially Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Boeing, are the biggest campaign contributors to members of the House Appropriations Committee—the congressional body that regulates expenditures of the federal government. Between 2006 and 2018, these companies contributed a total of $27.6 million just to members of the committee.
Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar, to take just one example, received large campaign contributions from GEO Group and CoreCivic ($55,690), Northrop Grumman ($13,000), Boeing Corporation ($10,000), Caterpillar Inc ($10,000) and Lockheed Martin ($10,000). Not surprisingly, Cuellar has been one of the loudest Democratic voices pushing for technological solutions to border security. The top border wall construction companies are also partisan altruists—donating most generously to Republican lawmakers with anti-immigration agendas.
Corporations and the ex-government officials on their boards are not the only ones making money, either. With such large sums spilling out of the border agencies’ coffers, universities and research institutes have also benefited through nine Centers of Excellence on Borders, Trade, and Immigration. Just in 2017, universities received nearly $100 million for research and development. The schools who have taken advantage of this funding include the University of Houston, the University of Arizona, the University of Texas El Paso, the University of Virginia, West Virginia University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Minnesota, Texas A&M, Rutgers University, American University, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, as well as the Migration Policy Institute.
Fighting the Border Industrial Complex
When Silas Berkowitz left his job at Microsoft, he dove head-first into protesting the company and the many other corporations collaborating with ICE and Customs and Border Protection. And he is not alone: Efforts have been growing in cities across the country to name and shame the corporations participating in the border industrial complex. In September, Berkowitz was among 76 people arrested outside of Microsoft’s Fifth Avenue store—he was charged with disorderly conduct and fined $125 dollars.
Protesters have had some success already: Last year, they pushed particularly hard on JPMorgan Chase, which was providing capital to the private prison companies expanding operations in an historic upsurge of immigration detention. Make the Road New York, Corporate Backers of Hate, and Families Belong Together rallied supporters to Chase bank headquarters and even showed up at CEO Jamie Dimon’s Manhattan home. After a long campaign, the pressure successfully pushed Chase to disinvest from Geo Group and CoreCivic, the largest for-profit immigration detention corporations. As of this August, seven other major banks have pulled out funding—representing an estimated $2.35 billion of credit—from both companies, and Fitch Ratings downgraded their credit ratings to “negative.” The stock prices of both companies has fallen 30 percent since the summer.
And yet with the Trump in office (for now), and with record numbers of people detained by ICE on any given day (over 51,000), the private companies helping the government “secure” the border and lock up immigrants have found other sources of capital and haven’t changed their business model. As Amanda Gilchrist, spokeswoman for CoreCivic, recently told The Washington Post, the company’s “fiscal health has been unaffected by these bank announcements, and we have seen a positive response from many other banks that are interested in working with us.”
Jesse Ortiz, an organizer with Cosecha—a pro-immigrant organization—which has been involved in a number of protests against Amazon, Palantir, and Microsoft in the past year, explained to me that the recent swell of these protests, in New York at least, came out of the push to block Amazon from installing a new headquarters in Queens (Amazon provides its Rekognition software to Palantir, which works directly with ICE). Ortiz and other Cosecha organizers hope to highlight the links between “everyone’s life and these companies who are doing business with ICE.” Moving beyond the slogan of #AbolishICE, Ortiz and other organizers have asked themselves how to actually achieve that abolition. They realized that ICE depends not only on financing from banks but also on some of today’s ubiquitous technology and software companies. And yet a targeted focus on household names is still missing much of the picture: the construction, transport, surveillance, and arms corporations, as well as, of course, the agencies and lawmakers themselves, are the primary actors in immigration enforcement. As Miller puts it in his report, “Modern US border control involves much more than a wall.” It is “an extensive technological border-control infrastructure that penetrates deep into the US interior and into the border regions of Mexico as well as countries in Central America and the Caribbean and beyond.”
“We will be judged by what we did, both individually and as a nation,” Emmy Hammond, a DSA member who participated in two protests against corporations doing business with ICE—and was twice arrested—told me. Explaining what was driving her to put herself at legal risk in calling out these companies and demanding that they stop doing business with ICE, Hammond emphasized, “It’s not just family separation that’s evil. We could stop family separation tomorrow, and what is happening would still be inhumane.”
As Berkowitz put it, “In the face of massive state oppression and violence against a vulnerable group, I could not imagine how a population sits by and doesn’t urgently rise up to change the status quo.” One step towards that change, these new reports make clear, is expanding protest beyond Microsoft, Amazon, and the banks, and to the military (and immigration enforcement) giants like Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman—some of whose latest and most lucrative wars are not on distant shores but right on our borders.