Northeastern Could Send a Powerful Message by Cutting Ties with ICE

Protesters are calling on the university to end a multimillion dollar contract with the agency.

Photo by Alex Lau

Northeastern has the chance to send a powerful message to ICE. Will it?

On Wednesday, protesters will gather outside the university to call for the severing of a multimillion dollar contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that for the last 15 years has been responsible for rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts and elsewhere.

The university is two years and $2.7 million into a $7.8 million agreement with ICE for research designed to help combat illegal weapons trafficking, which reportedly may wrap up in a few months. As Northeastern and the researcher in charge have pointed out, it doesn’t have anything specifically to do with immigration. But the protesters, including Boston activist Evan Greer, say it could easily be used to help with deportations, and argued in an open letter that, either way, “Having any kind of contract with ICE at this moment in history is irresponsible and immoral.” A petition to that effect has since garnered nearly 2,000 signatures, including from students, alumni, and faculty. By Tuesday morning, 120 people said on Facebook they planned to attend Wednesday’s protest, which is slated to begin at noon at the school’s Krentzman Quad. More than 400 said they were interested.

Clearly, it’s complicated.  The faculty member leading the work with ICE, research scientist Glenn Pierce, has defended the project and pointed out that its aim is to help nobler causes like counterterrorism. Northeastern says its faculty have the academic freedom, and as a policy doesn’t tell them what they can and can’t study.

But right now the university has an opportunity to send a powerful message and set an example that the many groups doing business with ICE right now could follow by refusing to collaborate with an agency that spends a big chunk of its time and resources rounding up people who aside from flouting our broken immigration laws have done nothing wrong (including those who show up at government offices for immigration appointments).

The growing “Abolish ICE” movement, which now includes much of the Massachusetts delegation, has argued that ICE should get out of the deportation business for good, and that its other duties, including the fight against human trafficking and child pornography, should instead be made priorities, or absorbed elsewhere in the federal government. It’s an argument that has even been made by several special agents within ICE, who said in a recent letter they worry the immigration crackdown is a distraction from real threats and more important goals.

It definitely seems like the kind of thing Northeastern could get behind. Back when the Trump administration was rolling out its disastrous travel ban, the university spoke up to condemn it. Right now, it can do even more.