On the morning of August 7, 2019, more than 600 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents descended on seven chicken processing plants in rural Mississippi. The raids proceeded with steely efficiency: ICE agents told workers to form lines, then began placing people under arrest. They knew who their targets were. By the end of the day, the agents had detained more than 680 people, in the largest ICE raid in over a decade, and possibly the largest raid ever to take place in a single state.
In the chaos of the raids, how did ICE agents know exactly who to arrest? The feds needed to know more than just their targets’ names: They also needed to know exactly what their targets looked like, as well as details like which cars they drove and when they would arrive for their shifts. In short, the massive operation was the result of a years-long investigation. Now, new documents reveal that the secretive data firm, Palantir Technologies, provided software used in that investigation.
The connection between Palantir’s technology and the raid, first discovered by the immigrant activist organization Mijente, reveals the growing role of Silicon Valley in the federal government’s deportation machine, even as tech companies deny their involvement.
In recent years, Palantir and other technology firms have sought to distance themselves from the government’s immigration enforcement operations—particularly after the family separation crisis in the summer of 2018. As stories spread of children being ripped out of parents’ arms, corporations tried to assure the public that their products weren’t part of detention or deportation.
Palantir, for its part, has asserted that its tech is only used in ICE’s criminal investigations—not the sort of operations that deport people for living in the country undocumented (which is a civil violation, not a crime). In December 2018, Palantir gave a statement to The New York Times seeking to clarify the company’s $38 million contract with federal immigration authorities. The statement explained that Palantir’s contract with ICE wasn’t with the part of the agency that carries out detention or deportations.
“There are two major divisions of ICE with two distinct mandates,” Palantir’s December statement read. It said that Palantir’s contract is with a specific division called Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). HSI’s main mandate is to complete criminal investigations into felonies like cross-border drug smuggling or human trafficking. It is different than the ICE division that has a mandate to detain and deport undocumented immigrants—the Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) division.
“We do not work for E.R.O,” Palantir’s statement read. The implication was that Palantir’s tech helps the government investigate criminals, not locate and deport families.
However, there’s a growing body of evidence that Palantir’s tech is, at least in part, powering workplace raids that end with people being deported. That’s because the investigations that lead to workplace raids—like the one in Mississippi—are carried out by HSI.
“They get to call them criminal investigations, because very often they’re prosecuting people for things like working with fraudulent documents,” Jacinta González, a senior campaign organizer at Mijente, told Truthout. “So they’re using certain types of crimes to justify the raids.”
Mijente’s analysis of publicly available court documents has revealed, for the first time, that the Palantir tech was integral to the years-long HSI investigation that culminated in the arrest of almost 700 people in Mississippi.
In an August 5 affidavit asking for the search warrant of Koch Foods—one of the poultry plants where ICE would arrest dozens—an HSI special agent explained how the investigation began with tips being entered and analyzed using special software Palantir created for HSI.
“HSI Jackson has recently received numerous HSI Tip Line leads suggesting Koch Foods … is knowingly hiring and employing illegal aliens and/or subjects without employment authorization,” the affidavit read.
According González, the “HSI Tip Line” is Palantir’s FALCON Tipline, a kind of specially designed data entry platform. The FALCON Tipline lets HSI collect, store and analyze tips the agency receives. Additionally, by standardizing information gained from tips, HSI staff can then input that data into another Palantir product—FALCON Search and Analysis. Once that happens, Palantir’s powerful data tools supercharge investigations.
Where once a tip was essentially a voice on the other side of a phone line, the FALCON Tipline and Search and Analysis system can effectively turn every tip into the start of an investigation, almost automatically. Here’s how it works: When the bespoke data from the Tipline gets entered into FALCON Search and Analysis, the software immediately reviews a huge wealth of information the government potentially already has—existing operations, known associates, organizations, events, locations, etc.
“It’s almost like Facebook for police,” González said. “They’re able to put in a name and figure out all relationships, figure out connections.”
González says that these two FALCON products allow the government not just to locate targets, but also collect and present the kind of information they need to gain search warrants to raid workplaces.
HSI presented evidence from Tipline under the “probable cause” section of its search warrant request for Koch Foods. This is the first clear indication that Palantir’s tech helped power the enormous Mississippi raid—an operation that left some children without caretakers, as their parents were detained. The consequences of arresting 680 members of small rural communities have had serious and grave consequences for towns in central Mississippi.
However, this is not the first time Palantir has been implicated in ICE’s workplace raids. In July, a report by WNYC revealed the Palantir tech had “directly powered” ICE’s raids in New York City: Before a large operation in 2017, ICE leadership instructed agents to download Palantir’s mobile FALCON app, which can be used to search databases and identity targets in real time in the field.
Since the beginning of 2018, ICE has been actively increasing its commitment to workplace raids. As those operations expand, Palantir’s role in HSI investigations could continue to implicate the tech firm in the same sort of mass deportation efforts as the Mississippi raid.
Palantir did not respond to a request for comment.
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