How to Stop the Border Militarization Bonanza: A New Divestment List Identifies the Top Companies Involved in Border and Immigration Abuses
In this Q&A, Dov Baum of the American Friends Service Committee identifies corporations profiting from border and immigration enforcement and the "people pressure" needed to counter them.
An issue that we have focused on at The Border Chronicle is the private industry that has developed over the years around border and immigration enforcement. Particularly since 9/11—with the creation of two massively funded agencies, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement—there has been a dramatic jump in contracts issued to private industry (109,265 of them since 2008). And this didn’t stop after the inauguration of Joe Biden: During fiscal year 2021, CBP and ICE issued 8,842 contracts to private companies, worth about $6 billion. Given that these companies wield tremendous influence in Washington and on policy making—yet often elude media coverage—this is an issue we plan to watch closely in 2022.
In November the American Friends Service Committee announced a new divestment initiative, called “Divest for Immigrant Justice,” targeting the border and surveillance industry. We thought this would be of great interest to Border Chronicle readers.
In the following interview, AFSC’s director of economic activism, Dov Baum, talks about the first immigration justice divestment list of companies ever created, as far as we know. AFSC’s list identifies more than 60 companies that have profited from the militarization of the border and from the surveillance, criminalization, and incarceration of migrants.
Here Dov mentions some of the listed companies, such as the airline company Air Transport Services Group, which not only delivers packages for Amazon but also runs deportation flights for ICE. She also describes some early successes with the initiative, such as with Microsoft. Dov lays out how activists, investors, and even these companies’ employees can use the Investigate list to pressure companies to pull out of the border industry. The companies, she says, might be more susceptible and malleable than we think. The interview also reads in parts like a tutorial on how to use the Investigate website, which we hope will be useful to you.
The American Friend Service Committee (AFSC) has compiled an impressive database on companies involved with human rights violations around the world. What is Investigate, and why is it important for immigrant justice?
Last summer and fall we completed a new iteration of our research of corporations involved in the repression of immigrants, including companies providing construction and maintenance on the U.S.-Mexico border, and those involved in deportations, immigrant detention, transportation of immigrants across the country, and mass surveillance of populations. The idea of the Investigate website is to put in one place everything (and this is now updated to September) about the publicly traded companies that have some significant involvement with ICE and CBP. We hope that this new resource allows for new types of actions for people to take for immigrant justice.
I see Investigate as a tool for activists and for investors to take action. It’s also a research publication and a warehouse for information, but I think people should be excited about it because it spurs action. We have a lot of experience providing support to divestment campaigns. Divestment is a word that has many meanings and some misconceptions. The main gap is between the interpretation by movements and activists, and the interpretation by investors. And we try to bridge the gap between these two groups. We try to collect information that would be useful for activists and for investors.
We’re not in the position to call for a specific action or to run a campaign. We try to supply tools that will allow activists and investors to take specific actions to change corporate policies, and through that, also government policies.
How long have you been focusing on border issues?
The border focus was started a few years back when some cities—including the city of Berkeley—passed legislation declaring that they wanted to divest from the Trump wall. It was a political anti-Trump statement, and they reached out to us and asked for the list of companies involved. We got back to them and said, Well, this is not just the Trump wall: there has been a wall on the border for some years now. What you need to do is actually divest from the U.S.-Mexico border.
The list of companies we ended up compiling needed to be current, and relevant, for it to have an impact on corporate policies, to get corporations to stop being involved, to get corporations to divest. Our new research was designed to support existing campaigns and spur new ones. Like the networks of investors we are already working with, socially responsible investors and faith investors who are interested in action for the common good. We were inspired by the work with Mijente and Just Futures Law on No Tech for ICE, a fabulous campaign asking tech companies to divest from their complicity in mass surveillance.
Putting it all together, it made sense to become a repository for information for the movement and investors about all such companies involved, their level of involvement, and the specifics of their current involvement.
How do you determine which companies to target in your divestment campaign?
We have an in-house rating system that allows us to rate corporations based on three criteria. The first is their “responsibility,” which measures the distance between the companies’ activities and the harm. Is the company incarcerating people itself, or selling products used in the incarceration facility? The second is the companies’ “Responsiveness”—measuring responsiveness to public concerns. Are things already changing in the company? Maybe we should allow it to do so, and the actions investors would take would be more engagement rather than divestment. And the third one is the “salience” of the violation. This is a human rights term used by the UN to measure the scope and scale of the impact of the human rights violation on people and communities. We score each company and each violation using these three criteria, and the companies with the highest score are those we recommend for divestment.
The Investigate database is three-tiered: The first tier is all the companies that have some significant involvement in any of the areas we research, for example, the maintenance of the U.S.-Mexico border. The second tier includes the main publicly traded companies that are central to these projects. These are the companies that we profile. The third tier consists of the companies we recommend for divestment.
Divestment works not on one company at a time. It works when a company knows that it has crossed a threshold and is now part of a screen, a list of companies that responsible investors will not be investing in.
Can you name some of the companies in the third tier, that are targets for divestment?
On our website, the companies with red exclamation marks are the ones we recommend for divestment. You can see some obvious ones like GEO Group and CoreCivic (private prison companies). I don’t know if many people would know about Motorola Solutions, but they are there too. We also have here some of the more stubborn banks that keep financing the prison companies, despite all these years of campaigning. These companies have not been responsive to pressure. And some of the weapons companies that militarize the border.
Then there’s the full list of companies—and we think that these companies would be responsive if we create more awareness and pressure. Amazon is here and Google is here (software and cloud services to CBP and ICE). That might be surprising to people. Some airlines are here.
Were any companies responsive?
We have been part of an effort to engage with Microsoft, which provides tools and infrastructure to the U.S. government to surveil immigrant communities and manage prisons, through a coalition of investors. In a recent meeting, Microsoft agreed to hire an outside consultant to do a human rights impact assessment of all of its mass surveillance contracts and dealings with law enforcement and ICE. We see this as a very positive first step toward reevaluating all of their harmful business activities.
Motorola Solutions, on the other hand, has not been responsive for many years. So it is listed for divestment.
What has Motorola been contracted for on the border?
Motorola owns Vigilant Solutions, which is responsible for license plate readers used by law enforcement and ICE all around the country. If you go to the Motorola profile on Investigate, which is quite extensive, you will see this company’s complicity in mass surveillance, border monitoring, prison security and surveillance, as well as the history of investors taking action with this company.
Are there any other companies on the list that might surprise people?
One such company is Air Transport Services Group. It is a charter cargo airline, used by ICE for “high risk” deportation flights. Thirty percent of its revenue comes from the DOD, for military transports. What is surprising is that it is 20 percent owned by Amazon, and Amazon has an option for owning almost 40 percent of it, because Amazon is using it for its deliveries. Just recently there was a human rights complaint to the DHS about the use by ICE of a restraining device called “the WRAP” on these deportation flights. African asylum seekers have been “wrapped” in these torture devices and put on those flights sent to Cameroon, just like Amazon sends its packages around the world. We need to raise this issue with Amazon, and ask the company to cut all ties to this packaging of human beings. Check out our divestment list and the outrageous stories in every one of these company profiles.
Could you tell me about “Divest for Immigrant Justice”?
What we can now offer is a set of tools for divestment, for individual investors, for institutions, and also for activists. Over the last 11 years, we have been supporting divestment campaigns on many issues, working with other faith organizations, with student groups, with community groups.
The activists themselves don’t need to have any investments of their own. They just need to have a connection to an institution that has investments. It could be your school, or city, or even the state. It can be your church, your place of work, any level of institution could be a target for a local campaign. Our own organization, the AFSC, has recently updated our investment policy to include a commitment to immigrant justice, to divest from the border and surveillance industries. We could not have done it before compiling our new divestment list!
What I’m trying to say is that divestment is a very accessible action. It allows people all around the country to take action for immigrant justice, even if they don’t live right on the border, even if they don’t live next to a big Boeing factory. Divestment allows activists everywhere to take meaningful action for justice.
And divestment works! All we need is a caring public, with activists to take action that would create some potential risk for the company. And then the stakeholders that are closer to the company, including investors, business partners, or even the employees of the company, can step in and negotiate with management. If this doesn’t work, and some companies are immovable, divestment will at least ensure that we did all we could to isolate their political influence.
Does this have an impact on government policy?
Obviously, in order to remove the “smart wall,” or restrict the reach of mass surveillance into our lives, we have to change government policy. When we target corporations, we try to change the incentives map, in order to make it easier for politicians and governments to change their policies. You see, corporations have a lot of sway, they have a lot of political influence, a lot of economic influence, and sometimes they drive entire industries of harm because they search for new markets and uses for their technologies. This is how technologies developed for war zones or spying are adapted for civilian borders or policing.
When we ask the companies to divest from borders or mass surveillance, we don’t think this will end the walls and the surveillance. It is aimed to remove some of the pillars of support and motivations for these institutions of harm, as well as the connections that helped them entrench themselves economically and politically.
Are activists often deterred by corporations since they are so big and seemingly powerful?
Activists are often afraid of large corporations and large money. What kind of sway can we possibly have with these monsters? What has surprised me over the years are the many many successes we’ve had with companies that have stepped away from the business we have asked them to step away from. It is unbelievable how malleable companies really are. Corporations are not in it for principles or some commitment to an idea. They are profit machines, and they are very, very sensitive to any hint of any potential future risk to their bottom line. This is why we try to offer strategic corporate research to activists: with good data about the company, people pressure can be very effective.
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