The Industry

Palantir Said It Had Nothing to Do With ICE Deportations. New Documents Seem to Tell a Different Story.

MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 28:  A Honduran immigration detainee sits in a holding cell before boarding a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), deportation flight bound for San Pedro Sula, Honduras on February 28, 2013 in Mesa, Arizona. ICE operates 4-5 flights per week from Mesa to Central America, deporting hundreds of undocumented immigrants detained in western states of the U.S. With the possibility of federal budget sequestration, ICE released 303 immigration detainees in the last week from detention centers throughout Arizona. More than 2,000 immigration detainees remain in ICE custody in the state. Most detainees typically remain in custody for several weeks before they are deported to their home country, while others remain for longer periods while their immigration cases work through the courts.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
A Honduran immigration detainee sits in a holding cell in Mesa, Arizona.
John Moore/Getty Images

Palantir Technologies, the $20 billion data-analytics firm founded by Peter Thiel with the help of $2 million from the CIA’s venture capital firm, has never been shy about its work with governments and law enforcement. But in December, when it was reported that the company renewed a $38 million contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Palantir sent a statement to the New York Times that appeared to distance the company from the Trump administration’s detention, deportation, and family-separation policies. Palantir stressed that it works with the Homeland Security Investigations unit of ICE, not Enforcement and Removal Operations, which “is responsible for interior civil immigration enforcement, including deportation and detention of undocumented immigrants,” the statement read. “We do not work for E.R.O.”

That might be the case, but a close read of recently released ICE documents reveals that Palantir has been far more involved with the detention and deportation functions than previously implied. The May 2017 documents, which were obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation led by the American Immigration Council in partnership with other immigrant rights groups and published last week in the Intercept, come from the Homeland Security Investigations unit. One particular seven-page report, titled “Unaccompanied Alien Children Human Smuggling Disruption Initiative,” explains 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.”

Once an unaccompanied minor is located by an ICE investigation agent, the document instructs the agent to log the “arrival in the Investigative Case Management (ICM) system.” The advocacy group Mijiente, which has been tracking Palantir and other tech companies’ ties to ICE, found the name of the Palantir software in the document, which it described in a blog post Thursday. ICM is a system built by Palantir, funded initially by a $41 million contract with ICE in 2014. With the ICM system, immigration agents are provided access to intelligence from the Drug Enforcement Agency, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies, in addition to information like a subject’s criminal record and work history.

“When an unaccompanied minor comes to the U.S. and goes to a shelter, various departments help find a sponsor for the child to take them out of custody and allow them to do be united with their families,”Mijente’s Jacinta Gonzalez told me in an interview. Previously, immigrants would be able to come forward and claim their child, be reunited, and then go through the immigration process. But under the program listed in the documents, ICE appears to have been conducting background checks on parents claiming children. This, according to Gonzalez, deters family members from claiming children, which has caused them to be detained for longer periods of time. “What these documents show is that as ICE was starting this program to try to prosecute and arrest people, and the key place where that information was stored and communicated to be able to prosecute them was through the ICM and Palantir’s information sharing,” says Gonzalez.

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.”

A 2017 letter from a coalition of immigrant rights groups to oversight officials at the Department of Homeland Security detailed how ICE and Customs and Border Control “are using unaccompanied child asylum seekers as bait to prosecute and deport their parents.” In a statement provided to the Intercept last week, ICE said that in the course of the operation,  443 people without documentation were arrested. Only 35 of those arrests were due to criminal activity.

While the specific program detailed in the documents that describe how children crossing the border were used to arrest their family members appears to not be ongoing, the process of verifying the immigration status of sponsors is still active, according to Gonzalez. The Investigative Case Management software is not limited to identifying families of unaccompanied minors. The Palantir software is used in range of investigations with DHS and ICE, providing agents with the ability to search across government databases, according to a 2017 report in the Intercept. Palantir did not respond to a request for comment.

Over the past year, tech workers across the U.S. have been calling on their employers to sever ties with Immigration and Custom Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol. Last summer, hundreds of Microsoft employees called on CEO Satya Nadella to end the company’s contract with ICE. Hundreds of Salesforce employees likewise last summer called on CEO Mark Benioff to cancel the company’s contract with CPB. 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, which owes its existence to government investment, is a different breed of tech company. As CEO Alex Karp has said, Palantir is “proud that we’re working with the U.S. government.”