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‘No Tech for ICE’: Protesters demand Amazon cut ties with federal immigration enforcement

The demonstration joins growing criticism of corporations contracting with federal agencies that enforce the White House’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

Amazon has faced criticism over its work with federal immigration enforcement agencies in the past. (Brendan Mcdermid/Reuters)

Hundreds of protesters had a message for Amazon at a company summit Thursday in New York: “Cut ties with ICE.”

Inside the Amazon Web Services Summit at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, Amazon Chief Technology Officer Werner Vogels was giving a keynote speech when protesters played the recordings of children being separated from their parents at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

About 30 protesters, who were all female immigrants and tech workers, interrupted Vogels five times before security removed them from the room, according to protester accounts and media reports.

“You just heard the voices and the tears of children being held at U.S. Customs and Border [Protection] facilities,” Jamie San Andres, a project coordinator for Make the Road New York, said during the event. “Cut your ties to ICE, Vogels, cut your ties to ICE. And all you tech workers, you’re being complicit. You’re being complicit. Take a stand against ICE.”

Vogels paused during his speech. “I’m more than willing to have a conversation, but maybe you should let me finish first,” he said.

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An Amazon Web Services spokesman said in a statement that companies and government organizations should use technology “responsibly and lawfully.”

“There is clearly a need for more clarity from governments on what is acceptable use of AI and ramifications for its misuse, and we’ve provided a proposed legislative framework for this,” the statement said. “We remain eager for the government to provide this additional clarity and legislation, and will continue to offer our ideas and specific suggestions.”

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Thursday’s demonstration joins growing criticism of corporations such as Microsoft, Salesforce and Wayfair for business relationships that involve federal agencies responsible for enforcing of the White House’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

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The event was free and open to the public. Hundreds of demonstrators also gathered outside the convention center starting around 8 a.m. and staying for two hours Thursday, blocking 11th Avenue.

Audrey Sasson, the executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, who demonstrated outside, said many tech workers who were walking into the summit were surprised by their message.

“We’ve known this for a year,” she said. “It’s just shattering to think that it goes on, and that one of the biggest corporations in the world is taking part of that. It feels like we have an obligation to say something.”

Other organizations that joined the protest included Make the Road New York, Mijente, New York Communities for Change and Tech Workers Coalition New York.

“Technology will always be used by the powerful to further their own ends,” read a Twitter post by Tech Workers Coalition New York. “As workers, we must band together and say no — we will not repeat the horrors of the past. We will not build concentration camps. We will not build the deportation machine. We will not separate families.”

On Monday, activists are planning to deliver 250,000 petitions to Bezos’s new $80 million home in Manhattan. The petitions call on Amazon to cut ties with ICE, among other demands.

It’s not the first time Amazon has faced criticism over its work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. On Monday, Forbes reported, employees sent an internal email to the company, referencing a June 2018 letter they say more than 500 employees signed off on and sent to Bezos and Amazon Web Services chief executive Andy Jassy. They say the company has “shied away” from their original demands: to stop marketing and selling its facial-recognition technology, Rekognition, to government agencies, including immigration and police authorities, and stop hosting Palantir, a data analytics company that contracts with ICE, on the Amazon Web Services cloud.

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“The U.S. government has been responsible for detaining people, including young children, in concentration camps under horrific conditions,” the email reads. “This is a horrifying violation of human rights — and it’s powered by AWS.”

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment regarding the internal email.

ICE is scheduled to conduct raids targeting at least 2,000 undocumented immigrants across the United States starting Sunday, the New York Times reported — the day before Amazon’s annual Prime Day.