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Northeastern University under fire for receiving millions from ICE contract

Boston activist Evan Greer, photographed in 2015, has launched a petition urging the university to end its contract with ICE.
Boston activist Evan Greer, photographed in 2015, has launched a petition urging the university to end its contract with ICE.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2015)

A group of students, activists, and faculty members is calling on Northeastern University to drop its multimillion-dollar contract to do research for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the government agency at the center of a national conversation on human rights and immigration.

Northeastern has received $2.7 million from ICE over the last two years to support a faculty member’s research on exports that could be used as illegal weapons, according to federal spending data available online.

An online petition launched Tuesday by Boston activist Evan Greer is urging the university to end the contract, asserting that any collaboration with ICE is immoral and irresponsible. Since posting the petition, she has garnered more than 1,200 signatures online.

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“Northeastern as an institution has political power, and it needs to decide whether it wants to use that political power to fight for what’s right,” Greer said Thursday.

“[We are] looking for this university to definitively say, ‘This is wrong, we’re not going to do this anymore, and we’re going to stop it.’ ”

Glenn Pierce, a principal research scientist at Northeastern who applied for the grant in 2016, said his work focuses on export data for “dual-use” technology that could be used for illegal, destructive purposes such as terrorism.

Pierce said he understands the concerns about collaborating with ICE, but he said his work does not deal directly with immigration enforcement or detention.

“If someone wants to say the overall agency is a problem, then that would be a problem. . . . I get that, and I think that you could make that argument,” he said. “But if you look at it a little more closely, that’s not what we’re doing and that’s not what we want to do.”

The contract could go until 2021 and be worth a total of up to $7.7 million, but the research will most likely end in August, Pierce said.

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The Northeastern contract was first reported in a Money article.

In recent weeks, ICE’s immigration policies have garnered national attention, amid calls for the agency to be abolished . The agency’s separation and detention of thousands of migrant families along the US-Mexico border have dominated headlines and sparked massive protests against the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy for illegal immigration.

Greer, who has no direct connection to the college but works nearby, said she is worried that ICE could use Northeastern’s research for harmful, unintended purposes.

“This is an agency that is violating human rights. . . . This is a moment to decide which side of history you are on,” she said.

In a statement, the university defended the contract on the basis of academic freedom.

“Our commitment to academic freedom goes beyond protecting what professors say; it also means allowing faculty members to freely pursue researching funding in their fields of expertise,” the statement said. “Efforts to restrict which federal agencies a faculty member can approach for research funding are antithetical to academic freedom.”

The petition asks signers to identify whether they are students, alumni, or staff members. As of Thursday afternoon, 600 signers identified themselves as students, 300 as alumni, and nearly 40 as faculty/staff members.

“Northeastern University has spoken strongly in defense of our immigrant and international students in the past year, but by benefiting from any financial contract with ICE the university demeans itself and devalues those statements,” Ryan Cordell, a Northeastern English professor, said in an e-mail Thursday, elaborating on several of his tweets.

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Northeastern has said it remains committed to diversity. Last year, the university joined 30 other universities in an amicus brief to the US Supreme Court opposing President Trump’s immigration ban on several majority-Muslim countries.

Hayes Bortz, a third-year political science and economics major at Northeastern, said the university should take concrete steps to prove it “not only talks the talk, but it walks the walk.”

“Given the actions that ICE has been engaged in recently and throughout its entire existence, to suggest that you can accept money from ICE in an ethical and moral way is just not possible,” he said.


J.D. Capelouto can be reached at jd.capelouto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jdcapelouto.