WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just a few days before President Donald Trump hits his symbolic 100-day benchmark in office, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unveiled a new office to serve victims of criminal acts committed by immigrants.
That office, which also highlights crimes committed by immigrants, fits neatly into Trump’s own playbook in which he portrays certain immigrants as criminals, rapists, and drug dealers. Equating immigrants with criminals has long been part of Trump’s bombastic campaign speeches, and has helped inspire several incidents of violence against people of color and people of faith since he came into the national spotlight.
On Wednesday, DHS Secretary John Kelly and Acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Thomas Homan announced the opening of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, housed within the ICE agency. The new office aims to track crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, a proposal the president first announced during an address to a joint session of Congress in February. That was later crafted into an executive order entitled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.” The order calls on DHS to create an office to support victims of crimes committed by immigrants.
“There is nothing but goodness in what we’re doing in establishing this office, particularly as outreach to victims of these crimes,” Kelly remarked as he took the stage in a packed room inside ICE headquarters.
Kelly also acknowledged the first four rows of attendees, which were reserved for DHS personnel, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), and relatives of people killed by undocumented immigrants. Some relatives wore “45” hats in support of the current president and donned Trump stickers.
“The name fits — we’re giving people who were victimized by illegal aliens for the first time, a voice of their own,” Kelly continued. “All crime is terrible, but these victims, as represented here, are unique and are too often ignored. They’re causalities of crime that should have never taken place — because the people who victimized them oftentimes should not have been in the country in the first place.”
These victims of illegal aliens aren’t data points, they’re people.
“These victims of illegal aliens aren’t data points, they’re people,” Kelly added.
Through the VOICE program, people can call a hotline staffed by more than 20 ICE community relations officers and 27 victim assistance specialists, who provide them with “what information is available and to help victims understand the immigration enforcement and removal process,” according to a press release.
“If you were to call, we wouldn’t be asking for your status,” an ICE official who spoke on background told ThinkProgress. He vehemently insisted the program wasn’t for people to report criminal activity or for them to report a suspected undocumented immigrant. Rather, the official said the program was for individuals to receive additional criminal or immigration history about a criminal immigrant and have access to social service professionals. The office would also help victims track the status of an immigrant in federal custody — so they can have answers to questions like, “is [the criminal immigrant] behind bars? Is he out of the country?”
The program was well received by the family members of people killed by undocumented immigrants. That includes Billy Inman, who seethed as he recalled the horrific event when an undocumented immigrant driving at high speed rear-ended his car. The accident killed his teenage son and left his wife wheelchair bound and now the immigrant is likely living in Mexico, Inman said.
“He changed our lives drastically. He killed our son and put my wife in the kind of shape she’s in,” he told ThinkProgress, pointing towards his wife who sat next to him in a wheelchair. Inman was grateful for the VOICE program because he saw it as “another avenue for a normal person to go to, to see which way they need to go about what happened to him.”
“I want to help families like mine and hold some people accountable, is what I’m looking for out of this,” Inman said. He noted President Trump had previously assured him the office would be created for families like his.
“This is the reason he’s doing what he’s doing for what happened to my family,” Inman said.
But Inman had other thoughts about undocumented immigrants, saying they are “taking the country over” and claimed, “you can’t go down the street and get a job.”
“It’s their decision to be legal or illegal, just like it’s your decision, my decision to believe in God or not,” Inman said. “They need to be held accountable. This breaks my heart that this is even happening.”
“I’m not racist,” Inman quipped without provocation.
The death of Inman’s son and that of other people killed or injured by undocumented immigrants is beyond tragic. Yet, immigrant advocates and congressional Democrats worry the creation of such an office —which is entirely reliant on the exploitation of emotionally-charged stories of horrific deaths— will negatively stereotype immigrants in a way that portrays them as criminals.
“The VOICE office will feed into the wrong-headed and destructive narrative that there are ‘good’ immigrants and ‘bad’ immigrants,” Laura Barrett, executive director at the Interfaith Worker Justice, said in a press statement. “The tradition of immigration in the United States has never been merit-based and it should not start now.”
“The establishment of this office sends a message that the Trump Administration is fixated on continuing to stir fear of immigrants while spreading myths about undocumented immigrants and crime,” Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “Looking at the facts, it is clear that there is no epidemic of immigrant crime that the President all too often asserts.”
It is blatantly racist and a dangerous new tool.
“It is blatantly racist and a dangerous new tool for extremists and white supremacists,” Salvador Sarmiento, National Campaign Coordinator for the advocacy group National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) said. “Trump’s weapon is fear. Trump wants white people to fear anyone who is not white. And he wants all of us to fear him and his administration.”
Trump has long campaigned on harsh immigration policies that would broaden the scope of crimes punishable by deportation. During his address to the joint session on Congress, the president brought relatives of people killed by immigrants as his guests of honor.
But the data doesn’t support Trump’s suggestion that immigrants should be feared. First-generation immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans, various studies have found, although it would appear that the second generation, now assimilated, catches up to their native counterparts.