Peter Thiel’s Palantir Was Used to Bust Relatives of Migrant Children, New Documents Show

Palantir previously claimed its software was strictly involved in criminal investigations as opposed to deportations. This was false.

Immigrants attempt to enter the US between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas, on April 29, 2019. - Family apprehensions in El Paso area have topped about 60,000 individuals, an increase of 1,670%, up from about 3,000 last year, according to officials. (Photo by Paul Ratje / AFP)        (Photo credit should read PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)
Immigrants attempt to enter the U.S. between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, on April 29, 2019. Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

Palantir, the CIA-funded data analysis company founded by billionaire Trump adviser Peter Thiel, provided software at the center of a 2017 operation targeting unaccompanied children and their families, newly released Homeland Security documents show.

The documents undercut prior statements from Palantir, in which the company tried to draw a clean line between the wing of ICE devoted strictly to deportations and the enforcement of immigration laws, and its $38 million contract with Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, a component of ICE with a far broader criminal enforcement mandate. Asked about the contract renewal by the New York Times, a Palantir spokesperson stated:

“There are two major divisions of ICE with two distinct mandates: Homeland Security Investigations, or H.S.I., is responsible for cross-border criminal investigations. The other major directorate, Enforcement and Removal Operations, or E.R.O., is responsible for interior civil immigration enforcement, including deportation and detention of undocumented immigrants. We do not work for E.R.O.”

Documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act litigation and provided to The Intercept show that this claim, that Palantir software is strictly involved in criminal investigations as opposed to deportations, is false. The discrepancy between the private intelligence firm’s public assertion and the reality conveyed in the newly-released documents was first identified by Mijente, an advocacy organization that has closely tracked Palantir’s murky role in immigration enforcement. Far from detached support in “cross-border criminal investigations,” the materials released this week confirm the role Palantir technology played in facilitating hundreds of arrests, only a small fraction of which led to criminal prosecutions.

A May 2017 ICE document on an impending “Unaccompanied Alien Children Human Smuggling Disruption Initiative,” characterized as “a joint effort of ERO and HSI,” makes explicit the fact that ERO used Palantir’s Investigative Case Management software to target the parents and other relatives of unaccompanied minors crossing the border — a precursor to the Trump administration’s family separation policy. In a section on “Coordinating Instructions,” the operational document describes how “the 26 HSI special agents in charge (SAC) will coordinate with their respective 24 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) field office directors (POD) to establish teams of HSI special agents and ERO deportation officers, with the support of the local HSI SAC intelligence program.” The instructions go on to state that “[e]ach SAC will be responsible for determining how to document each UAC arrival in the Investigative Case Management (ICM) system; however, it is recommended that every initial UAC encounter at the border or its functional equivalent be documented.”

As The Intercept reported in 2017, “ICM allows ICE agents to access a vast ‘ecosystem’ of data to facilitate immigration officials in both discovering targets and then creating and administering cases against them” and provides ICE with “access to intelligence platforms maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and an array of other federal and private law enforcement entities.”

The document makes clear that the operation would directly target the parents and other family members of children apprehended at the border — all with the help of Palantir’s case management app. The document continues to instruct that if “sufficient information on parents or family members is obtained” while investigating an unaccompanied child, “a collateral case will be sent via ICM to the affected AOR’s team for action.” The instructions make clear that ICM-enabled inquiries could result in charges against a child’s family: “Teams will be available to immediately conduct database checks and contact suspected sponsor/parent or family members to identify, interview, and, if applicable, seek charges against the individual(s) and administratively arrest the subjects and anybody encountered during the inquiry who is out of status.”

The Palantir-aided campaign to hunt down and arrest family members of children who crossed the border alone was touted by the Trump administration’s top immigration hard-liners as a necessary measure to deter asylum seekers from making the journey north. According to figures ICE provided The Intercept on Monday, the 2017 initiative led to 443 arrests, including 35 criminal arrests. Prosecutions, however, were more difficult to come by, with ICE acknowledging that the campaign led to just 38 prosecutions related to “alien smuggling” or “re-entry of removed aliens.”

In a letter to the top oversight officials at DHS in December 2017, a coalition of immigrant rights organization described the so-called “surge initiative” as unconstitutional and said federal law enforcement was “using children as bait.”

The documents detailing the enforcement campaign were first obtained by the American Immigration Council — in collaboration with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, the National Immigrant Justice Center, Kids in Need of Defense, Women’s Refugee Commission, and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP — as part of ongoing freedom of information litigation surrounding the Trump administration’s family separation policy.

“The detention and deportation machine is not only driven by hate, but also by profit,” Jesse Franzblau, senior policy analyst for the National Immigrant Justice Center, said in an email to The Intercept. “Palantir profits from its contract with ICE to help the administration target parents and sponsors of children, and also pays Amazon to use its servers in the process. The role of private tech behind immigration enforcement deserves more attention, particularly with the growing influence of Silicon Valley in government policymaking.”

Palantir CEO Alex Karp has previously expressed reservations about his company’s role in governmental overreach, despite federal contracts serving as some of the firm’s highest-profile business. “I didn’t sign up for the government to know when I smoke a joint or have an affair,” he told Forbes in a 2013 interview. This public stance appears to have softened since: Last year, Karp told the New York Times, “We’re proud that we’re working with the U.S. government.”

Palantir did not immediately comment.

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