WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump picked the grandest stage to unveil one of his first immigration initiatives: Appearing before a joint session of Congress a month after taking office, Trump announced the creation of a hotline to help victims of crimes committed by immigrants.
Almost immediately, the Victims of Crime Engagement hotline was immersed in controversy and confusion.
Trump’s critics saw the hotline, known as VOICE, as a cynical stunt that played to his political base, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars and perpetuating the false notion that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens. Others wrongly saw it as a hotline for reporting neighbors, colleagues or strangers they suspect are in the United States illegally.
Two years later, the hotline continues on. Its hurdle is to go beyond the political powder keg of the immigration debate and help crime victims in ways that local courts can’t, such as providing details about whether their assailants have been deported.
“I would stress no matter what opinion someone has, the fact remains that we are here to help victims,” the head of the endeavor, Barbara Gonzalez, told The Associated Press. Gonzalez is a longtime civil servant with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
Though ICE is responsible for arresting and deporting people in the U.S. illegally, Gonzalez stresses that her hotline isn’t involved in that. It strives to help victims regardless of their immigration status. Callers aren’t asked their immigration status when they call.
Still, callers are warned that they are being recorded and their names, addresses, phone numbers and other information are collected and may be shared within the Department of Homeland Security. Crime victims who are in the country illegally may be reticent to share that information.
Gonzalez said information on victims is shared with other components on a “need-to-know” basis and their privacy is a concern but didn’t get into specifics on what was shared. It’s also not clear how long data is stored.
She said before the hotline was created, crime victims couldn’t get information about a suspect’s immigration status. State and local officials can provide details of convictions and sentences, but don’t know whether a suspect has been deported. They don’t have access to ICE data.
That doesn’t sway immigration advocates.
“I think the whole premise of it is racist,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. “It uses their pain and suffering and their legitimate tragedy for a very political goal, which is to create the support for President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda.”
While victims of crime should be provided with support and services, the hotline has helped to fuel “the whole sense of fear thy immigrant neighbor,” Salas said.
Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for the immigrant advocacy group America’s Voice, said the hotline was set up because Trump “wanted to be able to say he was addressing the fictitious immigrant crime-wave he has conjured from his anti-immigrant fever dreams.”
The hotline got off to a rocky start. Personal data of callers was accidentally briefly released through a Freedom of Information Request by news outlets. In the first months, most of the calls were obvious hoaxes after someone suggested on Twitter that people call in to report space aliens.
One log entry says a caller reported “an alien who is outside his house and has green skin color.”
Other callers decried what they viewed as racist immigration policies by the Trump administration.
The most recent public report includes data from the hotline’s April 26, 2017, launch until Sept. 30, 2017, when there were 4,602 calls. Initially, most of the calls — 2,150 out of 3,351 — were unrelated, generally pranks. Toward the end of the period, call volume dropped and most of the calls were reporting crimes.
Gonzalez’s staff of 27 are stationed around the country and are part of ICE’s community engagement office with a budget of $3.9 million. Hotline calls are taken by operators and routed to the case agents. Callers are greeted with a recording saying the hotline’s main purpose is to provide information for victims.
“We are not a tip line,” Gonzalez said.
One caller, a mother of a 20-year-old college student who was raped, said she felt concerned about the hardline politics before she reached out to the hotline.
“When you’re a victim of crime, none of us gets enough support,” she said. “To have an office dedicated to this peculiar intersection of immigration and criminal justice, two systems that don’t know how to talk to each other, well, it was just really helpful for me, even though I know how rare it is for an immigrant to commit crime against a citizen.”
The woman spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because she did not want to reveal her daughter’s identity. Her daughter’s attacker pleaded guilty to reduced charges and got five years in prison. The mother didn’t get to speak at his parole hearing because she didn’t get proper notification, and she was growing increasingly frustrated.
She said she understood that while her daughter was attacked by an immigrant, it’s not the norm. But she still needed help figuring out whether he’d be deported when he finished his sentence, and she was afraid for her daughter’s safety. She called the prison, the prosecutors, even her local ICE office; No one knew how to help.
But after she called VOICE, a caseworker found his information, figured out when he was getting released and when he’d be picked up by immigration. The caseworker kept her notified throughout, including after the man was deported in August.
“Honestly, the help they provided was an unbelievable relief,” she said.