WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump promised to create an office that would help victims of crimes committed by immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security followed through quickly and opened the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office Wednesday.
But so far the main thing that’s new about the office — which will use an existing call center and staff to provide services that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has offered for years — is the message that accompanies it: Immigrants, especially undocumented ones, are violent criminals.
“Our mission is clear,” DHS Secretary John Kelly said Wednesday, “and that is to acknowledge the exceptional damage caused by criminal illegal aliens and to support the victims of these preventable crimes.”
The VOICE office isn’t intended to demonize undocumented immigrants or falsely imply they commit more crime, DHS spokesman David Lapan said. But Trump, who opened his campaign for president by saying Mexico was sending rapists across the border, has frequently branded immigrants as dangerous. And so far there’s not much evidence that the new VOICE office actually does anything new.
ICE has created a phone number for victims, witnesses and their families to call for information on the detention and deportation status of immigrants accused of committing crimes against them. But those phone calls will go to a call center that for years has offered information on immigration detainees’ location and status. The call center workers will answer the new hotline, offer general information about the immigration system and take down details of callers’ cases so the VOICE office can get back to them. Victims will be able to register to receive custody status updates, which they could get before, but they will now be automated. Anyone with identifying information about a detained immigrant can also use ICE’s detainee locator system, which dates to 2010.
ICE officials acknowledged that they’re essentially rebranding and revamping services but argued that doing so will ensure victims of crimes committed by immigrants are aware those services are available. Existing ICE personnel ― a few leaders in the national office and a community relations officer in each ICE field office ― will make up the new office’s staff. Community relations officers assigned to the office will still perform their current jobs, working with local governments and stakeholders to address immigration-related concerns, and will work with the Victims Assistance Program in the ICE Homeland Security Investigations unit.
Our mission is clear, and that is to acknowledge the exceptional damage caused by criminal illegal aliens and to support the victims of these preventable crimes. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly
ICE and DHS officials offered few details on how the agency will prevent abuse of the VOICE system, such as individuals claiming to be victims to check out their neighbors, but promised to deal with each case individually. ICE will check with its privacy officers to determine what it can and cannot reveal, the same way it does when it receives questions from reporters, one agency official said. It’s not clear how that policy will interact with a Trump executive order in January instructing agencies to limit privacy protections for non-citizens and legal permanent residents wherever possible.
The VOICE office is likely to change over time, officials said, and will eventually produce quarterly reports on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. DHS gave no timetable for what those would entail or when they would begin.
ICE officials also gave no statistics on the level of crime by immigrants, undocumented or with legal status. Numerous studies have found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens.
Latino and immigrant groups say that Trump’s rhetoric demonizes their communities and puts them in danger. To counteract the message, a group of House Democrats launched an effort of their own, the Saved by American Immigrants National Taskforce, or SAINT, that will collect stories of immigrants who “have positively contributed to U.S. society through heroic or lifesaving acts.”
“Propaganda is dangerous, and that is why we should all be troubled by the new Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office,” Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), one of those lawmakers, said in a statement Wednesday. “Immigrants are not a group to be feared.”