Columns, Opinions

Reed ’21: Amazon and ICE, an exercise in guilt by association

Staff Columnist
Friday, October 11, 2019

Late last month during a job fair organized by the University’s CareerLAB, students representing the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition staged a protest of four companies, including Amazon, for contracting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As part of their demonstration, four students stood in front of Amazon’s recruitment table bearing signs that read, in part, “#NoTech4ICE” and “IBM Sold Tech to Nazis.”  Brown Department of Public Safety responded to the scene, but after speaking with the protesters, the officers left without a resolution. In effect, the protesters disrupted the ability of Brown students to speak with Amazon recruiters. 

To be certain, the protesters have, and should have, the right to protest Amazon or any other company for any reason or no reason at all. But the question is not “should they have the right to protest,?” but rather “should they protest?” I’m by no means suggesting a universal standard regarding what should and should not merit public scorn. But if we examine the Amazon protest and apply the protesters’ logic more broadly, what follows is a highly undesirable standard. If Amazon is to be protested and boycotted for doing business with ICE, this sets a dangerously low bar for being “cancelled,” maligned or otherwise cast out as morally ill-suited for inclusion in civil society. 

When the bar is: “If you do business with someone with whom we disagree, then you’re finished” — that is, we’ll protest you, boycott you, shame people from working for you  — any potential for dialogue is drowned in a sea of ad hominems. In such a society, all nuance is removed from the equation: You’re either with us, or you’re with them. Under this standard, being with them is not just a matter of disagreement — it’s indicative of a deep moral failure. It’s classic guilt-by-association: it attempts to draw a false moral equivalency between two groups, the supposed perpetrators of injustice and those who sell them software.

Some have argued that protesting Amazon is tantamount to protesting ICE, because Amazon provides tools which are directly related to ICE’s role in deportations. Specifically, Amazon Web Services provides cloud computing technology which hosts the data ICE uses to track undocumented immigrants. But there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of companies whose products serve a critical role in the mission of ICE. 

If Ford manufactures their squad cars, if Aramark provides their uniforms or if Staples supplies their offices, should these companies be similarly shunned? Should organizations — like Brown — who do business with those companies be protested as well? Should companies who do business with those organizations be lumped in, too?

This is not to suggest that if you can’t boycott them all you shouldn’t boycott any of them. But there hardly seems to be any meaningful difference between Amazon and an office supplier who provides ICE with a  product that is perhaps less cinematic, but no less essential to their function. If you’re willing to protest the office suppliers of the world, at least you’re applying the standard consistently. But, of what use is such a standard if it results in such an intuitively untenable result?

Even if you think that every business bears the responsibility of refusing to sell ICE its products, consider that the standard set by protesters not only holds companies complicit in the actions of ICE, but their employees as well. Ask yourself, does a Brown student really deserve to be shamed for trying to speak to an Amazon recruiter? And if that student dares to accept a position at Amazon, do they now bear some measure of moral responsibility for the maltreatment of immigrants in ICE facilities? What if I dare keep my Prime membership after learning that Amazon does business with ICE, have I too earned the designation, “ICE-Collaborator?”

The point is, if you don’t like ICE, protest them. But to extend that grievance to Amazon and anyone tangentially related to ICE is self-defeating. Setting such an impossibly high standard lessens the protesters’ credibility and gives ammunition to the people who are predisposed to dismiss their cause with a roll of their eyes and a fleeting “here they go again.” Protesting those who directly execute policies with which you disagree is not just acceptable, it’s how progress is made in civil society. But the notion that anyone with the temerity to sell to ICE ought to be shamed, boycotted, or otherwise “cancelled” is textbook guilt by association.

Topics: , ,

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.


  1. “If Ford manufactures their squad cars, if Cintas provides their uniforms or if Staples supplies their offices, should these companies be similarly shunned? Should organizations — like Brown — who do business with those companies be protested as well? Should companies who do business with those organizations be lumped in, too?” Yes, yes, and yes. Your allegiance to the deportation machine is on full display here.

    • What’s wrong with deportations? Do you think that someone who has entered the country illegally, perhaps has committed crimes while here, should not be deported? Why the heck not? If the government cannot remove people who came in without permission does that mean that all 7 billion people should have the right to just walk in and start collecting food stamps and be covered by Obamacare?

  2. Protesting directly against ice doesn’t work as well as protesting directly against Amazon because you can’t guarantee that you can convince enough people through your protest to vote or influence their representatives in a way to push the Federal government to change ICE’s policy on deportation and the actions that may be considered human rights violations. Plus due to things like lobbyists and lack of campaign finance reform, the “power of the people” to influence their representatives is that much more weakened. Plus, these days politics is not about reaching out to get every vote, its about reaching out to get as many of the people who already agree with you to go out and vote so that they out-number the people that don’t agree with you. This is pretty much what gerrymandering is all about. So really there aren’t that many politicians who are willing to risk compromising or even listening to the people that don’t either already agree with them or are already contributing to their campaigns.

    So because of all the legalized corruption and monetary influence, direct political attacks via voting and trying to push politicians in your direction have been largely nullified So all that is left is to attack the supply lines. The services Amazon supplies to ICE are essential and necessary. If Amazon stopped providing these services it would significantly hurt ICE and its ability to implement the policies at issue.

    So in this case, attacking Amazon for working with ICE is strategically BRILLIANT! One target, one board of decision makers instead of trying to convince dozens of politicians and millions of voters.

    You want to call this morally or ethically wrong as “guilt by association”, then change the lobbying, gerrymandering and campaign financing rules that have and were specifically designed to make it near impossible to protest the “right” way.

    But until you do that, you cannot criticize the people you disagree with simply because they make the most strategic choices of the limited ones left to them.

    You cannot criticize protesters for not taking the”high road” when you’ve effectively segregated them out of it.

    Gerrymandering and the lack of any significant enforced regulations on lobbying and campaign finance have effectively tied the hands of many protesters who see what is going on and know that is wrong.

    And if you unjustly tie down people’s hands, you cannot blame them for learning the best way to kick you.

  3. If you believe that countries may place limits on the immigration of non-citizens, then you must accept the enforcement of those limits, which inevitably involves deportations. Deportation is not punitive; it is the minimal action required to stop the illegal behavior.

    Perhaps it would be better to have no restrictions on movement across countries, in the same way that there is no restriction on movement across communities within a country. In such a world, there would be no deportations.

    But this view is not widely accepted. The best way to change this is to persuade people. Ostracizing people you disagree with can be effective at winning small concessions, but it is unlikely to persuade anyone, and likely to create resentment. It is also anti-democratic to attempt to enact policy changes by force (in this case, inflicting economic costs on others unless they do what you want) rather than persuading the public.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *