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East Bay DSA

October 11, 2019

How Marc Benioff and Salesforce profit from ICE camps

By Katie Ferrari

Salesforce is making millions of dollars from the suffering of immigrants detained at the United States’ southern border.

In March 2018, the cloud computing giant signed a contract with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the largest agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). According to Salesforce, CBP uses a number of the tech company’s products to “modernize its recruiting process” and “manage border activities.” While Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a separate agency within DHS, ICE and CBP are heavily intertwined, and DHS has even considered merging the two agencies.

In 2010, DHS began to store the data it uses to operate in the “cloud” instead of on individual computers owned by government agencies. Data stored in the cloud (think Google Drive) can be accessed by any device with an internet connection. The cloud turbocharges efforts to track and detain immigrants by enabling city, state, and regional law enforcement agencies to rapidly share vast amounts of personal and private information, including biometrics. The cloud is quickly becoming the backbone of CBP and ICE’s operations.

As the border crisis, with its images of family separation and concentration camps, became more widely recognized under Trump, Salesforce workers began to organize against the Border Patrol contracts. By June 2018, they had collected 650 signatures on a petition that asked CEO Marc Benioff to “re-examine [Salesforce’s] contractual relationship with CBP and speak out against its practices.” The workers explained:

“We cannot cede responsibility for the use of the technology we create—particularly when we have reason to believe that it is being used to aid practices so irreconcilable to our values… We believe that Salesforce must stand with the families facing irrevocable and unimaginable harm at the hands of CBP.”

Billionaire Benioff chooses profits (and scuba diving) over people 

Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff has a net worth of $6.2B and likes to present himself as a philanthropist. After receiving the workers’ petition, he praised his employees’ concern but chose to side with CBP rather than with the families being torn apart at the border.

In an internal memo, he wrote that Salesforce would not terminate its contract with CBP, because Salesforce products were “not directly involved” in family separations. Benioff’s statement displayed his willful ignorance: CBP was paying Salesforce for products and software that helped it to hire more CBP agents and manage border activities. There is no way to untangle this work from the separation and detention of immigrants and refugees.

In early July, Benioff tweeted that the company had donated $1 million to organizations helping families separated at the border. By contrast, Salesforce last summer had a net worth of $110 billion. And while its unclear the exact price tag of the CBP–Salesforce contract, the DHS spends around $4.4 billion on data management. With these numbers in mind, it’s safe to say that the $1 million that Salesforce made a big show of donating was essentially pocket change compared to the size of its contract with CBP.

Salesforce offered $250,000 of that $1 million to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a nonprofit that provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees at the border. RAICES publicly rejected the donation, saying they would only accept the money if Salesforce ended their contract with CBP.

Jonathan Ryan, RAICES’ executive director, concluded the rejection email by telling Benioff that

“pledging us a small portion of the money you make from CBP contracts will not distract us from your continuing support of this agency. We will not be a beneficiary of your effort to buy your way out of ethical responsibility.”

Benioff set up a phone call with Ryan. On the morning of the scheduled phone call, Benioff emailed to cancel. The reason? “I am sorry I’m actually scuba diving right now.”

The Cloud Industrial Complex cozies up to ICE 

As Ryan made clear, the cloud is the backbone of CBP and ICE’s data-driven surveillance operations, and its importance to these agencies only continues to grow.

The 2018 National Lawyers’ Guild report, “Who’s Behind ICE?,” explains that “most key data systems supporting immigration enforcement at DHS are either hosted on commercial cloud providers or being migrated to them.” Tech companies like Salesforce have enormous leverage because ICE and DHS rely on their services to operate. If tech companies go on “strike” and refuse to do business with these agencies, they can grind the persecution of immigrants and refugees to a halt.

Instead, the CEOs of Salesforce, Amazon, Palantir, Microsoft, Google, and IBM have chosen to strengthen connections between border enforcement and the “Cloud Industrial Complex.” The Complex is a group of companies with contracts to maintain government data. Amazon is the largest contractor of cloud data to the United States government and is marketing its facial-recognition technology to ICE. Microsoft has a $19.4 million contract with ICE. IBM has received $1.8 billion in contracts from ICE and CBP since 2008. (IBM is no stranger to being on the wrong side: in World War II, it supplied the Nazis with technology that was used to transport millions of people to concentration camps.)

Borders are a billion-dollar business 

The Rio Grande forms part of the United States–Mexico border. Like all rivers, its path shifts over time: between 1848 and 1864, the river moved almost 600 acres to the south. Mule deer, javelina, cottontail rabbits, lizards, and other animals inhabit the borderlands. Like all animals, they migrate in search of food, water, and shelter, crossing and recrossing the border. Even human conceptions of the border shift and change: California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming were part of Mexico until 1848.

Borders, ultimately, are human constructs. But who does this almost two-thousand-mile-long construct benefit? Not the immigrants who try to cross it and end up in detention centers or are sent back to “wait” in Mexico. The vast majority of people at the United States’ southern border are refugees of U.S. foreign and economic policy. Ordinary people in the United States don’t benefit either, when 1.7 miles of fencing costs $1.57 billion––taxpayer dollars that could be going to fund broadly popular demands like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal.

No, the border construct, like many systems within capitalism, tramples the poor and working classes while helping the rich accumulate even more wealth. The United States’ southern border has proven to be a billion-dollar industry. Caged children curl together under aluminum-foil blankets while Marc Benioff’s net worth rises like the tide, and colorful fish float in front of his SCUBA mask.

Join the Tour of Shame this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Monday, October 14, 2019. Protestors will meet at Rincon Park in San Francisco and march past Amazon and Google. The tour will end with a rally at ICE headquarters to highlight corporate profiteering off detention and deportation and demand the camps be closed.