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Protesters urge Northeastern to end contract with ICE

Northeastern law student Jillian Gonzalez (middle) was among Wednesday’s protesters.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

More than 100 Northeastern University students, faculty, and community activists marched through the campus Wednesday demanding that the college cancel a multimillion-dollar research contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Northeastern has received $2.7 million from ICE for a faculty member to study data on technology exports. Protesters said they believe it is wrong to have any ties to the agency, which has faced criticism over President Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” immigration policy.

“In this present moment, it is pretty much immoral to be connected with an agency that is responsible for detaining and prosecuting immigrants, so I don’t want this school to be involved with that,” said Ienna Fernandez, a third-year law student at Northeastern who immigrated to the United States when she was 6 years old and spent 10 years undocumented.


The protesters first gathered on the Krentzman Quadrangle and held a large canvas with the message “Drop The ICE Contract,” as well as signs such as “ICE Is Better Crushed” and “Not My NorthICEtern.”

The protest followed an online petition last week calling for an end to the contract. As of Wednesday evening, more than 2,000 people had signed on.

Many of the protesters also called for the abolition of ICE, the agency that has come under fire amid the separation and detention of immigrant families at the US-Mexico border.

Northeastern’s contract is technically unrelated to immigration matters. The lead researcher, Dr. Glenn Pierce, said he analyzes data on “dual-use technologies,” exports that could be harmless or also used as weapons.

Although Pierce has said the contract is likely to end in August, students are demanding the school end it now.

“We have to oppose [the contract] on principle,” Northeastern PhD student Alex Ahmed said, adding that it lacks transparency about how exactly the research will be used. “I felt ashamed to be a student here.”


Protesters also said they would like to see some of the money from the contract redistributed into immigrants’ rights causes on campus or in the Boston community, according to Lili Giacoma, a law student and one of the rally organizers.

“We think that every day that the contract goes on is a day too long,” Giacoma said.

Several faculty members also took part in the protest.

“If the university remains apolitical in this context, then to some extent the university is complicit and should be challenged,” said Brook Baker, a law professor. “It does provide a service for an organization which is now far off the tracks in terms of human rights.”

In a statement Wednesday, ICE called the protest “misguided.”

“This is a contract whose goal is to help study how to better prepare for, respond to and recover from terrorist attacks involving explosives,” the agency’s New England office said in the statement. “Cancelling such a critical research effort to help combat terrorist explosive attacks would be unproductive and short-sighted, to say the least.”

In a statement following Wednesday’s rally, Northeastern said that peaceful protests are “the hallmark of a great university.”

“We celebrate the vigorous exchange of competing ideas, which is the basis of higher learning,” the university said.

During Wednesday’s protest, several law students also raised concerns that ICE is listed as an employer for the Northeastern’s student co-op program. Northeastern’s internal applications portal lists an internship at ICE and gives students tools to apply.


“If students want to work there, that’s their prerogative, but we don’t think the law school should be actively soliciting a relationship,” Giacoma said.

Northeastern has defended the internships, saying “students’ academic and professional goals should not be curtailed by social or political pressure.”

J.D. Capelouto can be reached at