MacKenzie Murdoch says she was surprised to learn that her state's university system receives money from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The 18-year-old rising sophomore at Northern Vermont University decided to reach out to school officials to voice her concern. She also started a petition calling for the state's public colleges to end their ties with ICE.
“I didn’t understand why we would have any connection to ICE,” says Murdoch. “I think that the mission Vermont State Colleges has for its schools doesn’t line up with any connection to family separations and the treatment of immigrants being detained.”
Murdoch’s campaign comes amid a sea of calls from students and immigration activists who want state and local governments, public colleges and politicians to sever their financial ties with companies and agencies involved in detaining immigrants. There is also a movement growing to abolish ICE.
While some of the politicians and institutions have given in to public pressure, others continue to defend their relationships with ICE and private prison organizations that operate detention centers.
Last week, hundreds of educators petitioned the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS), a public pension fund, to divest from private prison operators CoreCivic Inc. and the GEO Group. Both organizations operate immigration detention centers.
Across the country, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli earlier this month divested state pension fund holdings from GEO Group and CoreCivic. California's pension fund, however, is unlikely to follow New York's lead.
“CalSTRS prefers engagement over divestment,” said Michelle Mussuto, a CalSTRS spokesperson in an email. “We believe that, as a responsible investor, active and direct engagement is the best way to resolve areas of concern and a more effective tool to reduce risk than divestment.”
CalSTRS has "met with executives of both companies regarding their policies and procedures to prevent human rights abuses within their facilities," she added. "CalSTRS staff will continue to communicate with management, review policies and procedures, and visit facilities to see firsthand how they comply with policies, laws and standards."
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner of Illinois is also facing scrutiny after Politico reported this month that he profits from a private equity fund owned by a health care group servicing ICE detention centers.
According to Politico, the governor "said he relinquished investment decisions to a third party and has no direct ties to Correct Care Solutions."
The news raised some eyebrows, particularly because Rauner signed the Illinois Trust Act last year, which limits how local authorities can cooperate with federal immigration agencies.
Rauner is not the only politician caught up in seemingly conflicting messages.
The city of New York -- a sanctuary for immigrants -- is in the middle of a five-year $112,000 contract with ICE for “firing range facility rental,” according to a government database. Meanwhile, Mayor Bill de Blasio has called for abolishing ICE.
The mayor's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the health care world, the government-funded Denver Health and Hospitals system has held two contracts with ICE this year -- one for roughly $15,000 and another for $9,000. The latter, which ends in September, is described as “funding for detention guard service for ICE detainees admitted to Denver Health and Hospital." Denver is also considered to be a sanctuary city.
Other cities and counties receiving heat for contracts associated with detaining immigrants have moved to end them. The list includes counties in California, Oregon, Texas and Virginia. Sacramento County, Calif., for example, voted in June not to renew a multimillion-dollar contract it had with ICE to hold undocumented immigrants awaiting hearings.
"Our budgets must reflect our values," Sacramento Supervisor Phil Serna reportedly said at the time. "I do not value jailing immigrants, some of whom have not committed any criminal violations."
As for public colleges, Vermont's state school system isn't the only one caught in the immigration fight. Three other state schools held contracts with ICE over the last year: the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Maryland College Park and Virginia Tech.
Vermont Technical College, part of Vermont State Colleges, has been awarded contracts with ICE totaling just over $34,000 since 2014. ICE has a finance center in the state for processing criminal fines and bonds, and the technical college’s most recent contract provided accounting courses to the ICE employees who run it. The contract ended in May of this year.
The president of Vermont Technical College, Patricia Moulton, defended the contracts in an emailed statement.
“Providing leadership and financial accounting training to the employees of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement falls within the scope of the college’s value to the state in providing workforce training and development to the people of Vermont and the region," she said.
Virginia Tech held a 10-month, $12,000 contract with ICE that ended in June. “The lab was contracted to conduct tests on solid aluminum pallets confiscated by ICE at a port of entry,” according to a university spokesperson, Mark Owczarski. “The lab did its tests and issued a report for ICE.”
The University of Alabama at Birmingham held a contract last year for $73,000. According to university spokesperson Savannah Koplon, “the contract allowed UAB cyber-crime experts to directly conduct digital forensic and criminal justice activities to aid in preventing harmful drugs -- both counterfeits and opioids -- from being smuggled into the country illegally.”
The University of Maryland's ICE contract is set to expire in September. The minimum award amount is $125,000, and the agreement provides “counter-terrorism instruction and hazmat certification and training,” according to an email from ICE spokesperson Matthew Bourke.
None of the schools indicated, when asked, whether they would continue to use contracts with ICE in the future.