With family members of three Americans killed by illegal immigrants looking on, President Donald Trump on Tuesday night used his address to Congress to bring attention to his plan for an office to help victims of crimes committed by those not authorized to be in the country.
“I have ordered the Department of Homeland Security to create an office to serve American victims,” Trump said in his speech. “The office is called VOICE—Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.”
The mention brought audible groans and murmurs from some, apparently Democrats, in the House chamber.
Trump mandated creation of the office as part of an executive order he signed Jan. 25.
But by using part of his prime-time address to highlight this little-known part of the executive order, Trump sent a message as his administration implements a series of tough immigration enforcement measures.
“The idea is to have an office that will assist and advocate for people who have been victims or family members victimized by criminal immigrants,” Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said in an interview with The Daily Signal.
“There is a legitimate need for this kind of office, and they will be busy. I don’t see it as a symbolic or political move at all.”
The Trump administration has provided little information on what exactly the office will do, its budget, or staffing level. On Wednesday, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency in the Department of Homeland Security tasked with creating the office, gave few additional details.
“The men and women comprising the VOICE office will be guided by a singular, straightforward mission—to support victims of crime committed by immigration violators through access to information and other resources, as needed,” ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said in a statement to reporters.
In memos last week detailing implementation of Trump’s immigration policies, John Kelly, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, wrote that victims of crime committed by illegal immigrants “are often not provided adequate information about the offender, the offender’s immigration status, or any enforcement action taken by ICE against the offender.”
Kelly said ICE will appoint a liaison to “facilitate engagement with the victims and their families to ensure they are provided information about the offender and that their questions and concerns regarding immigration enforcement are addressed.”
Little published data exists on crime committed by illegal immigrants, and critics of the new office worry the president is exaggerating the risks to make his immigration enforcement initiatives more attractive.
A 2015 study by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute found that 820,000 illegal immigrants had criminal convictions, including about 300,000 with felony records.
“What they are trying to do is criminalize immigrants,” David Leopold, an Ohio-based immigration attorney, told The Daily Signal. “It seems this administration will stop at nothing to dehumanize and criminalize immigrants.”
Administration officials and their defenders point out that the program is aimed at illegal immigrants, not immigrants in general.
In the memos, Kelly writes that the process to gather and publish information about crime committed by illegal immigrants is hampered by a previous DHS policy that protected all those on whom the agency has records through the Privacy Act of 1974, regardless of their immigration status.
The Privacy Act of 1974 governs the collection, use, and dissemination of personal information about individuals maintained in federal government records.
Kelly said DHS no longer will afford privacy rights to those who are not U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. He also ordered ICE to provide monthly reports to the public detailing the arrest and release of illegal immigrants.
“The biggest thing this new office ought to be doing, and what it sounds like it is going to be doing, is gathering information on and regularly reporting the quality and quantity of crimes committed by illegal immigrants,” said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation. He added:
I don’t know of any government agency that is on a regular and consistent basis collecting this information and reporting it to the public and Congress. That is a very important way of providing evidence of the effects of not enforcing our immigration laws.
Objections of Immigration Lawyers
Immigration lawyers have expressed concerns about language in Kelly’s memo on reallocating DHS resources currently used to “advocate on behalf of” illegal immigrants to the new VOICE office.
It’s not clear what funds Kelly means, and ICE did not answer questions from The Daily Signal on that subject.
Greg Chen, director of advocacy at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told The Daily Signal that no government resources explicitly benefit immigrants who live in the country illegally.
Chen and his colleague, William Stock, president of the group, speculated that Kelly may be referencing funds ICE currently uses for “community engagement officers.”
According to ICE, community engagement officers strengthen “partnerships with state and local law enforcement agencies, community organizations, local governments, civic leaders, and the public” by fostering communication regarding the government’s immigration enforcement efforts.
These ICE officers sometimes sought community assistance to identify people they were looking to apprehend, Stock told The Daily Signal.
“Because the [officers] have also dealt with issues like communication problems family members have if a loved one is detained, there has been some press labeling them and the overall Community Relations Office at ICE [as] ‘advocates for illegal immigrants’ and calling for them to be defunded,” Stock said.
‘Shooting Himself in the Foot’
If the Trump administration were to deemphasize these efforts, and illegal immigrants lost privacy protections, Chen said, he worries this will harm law enforcement investigations that depend on tips from residents.
“If Trump’s real goal is to improve national security and public safety, he is shooting himself in the foot,” Chen said. “Immigrant communities will be less likely to use local law enforcement services to report crimes, and that is what law enforcement needs.”
Regardless of this program’s fate, Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies, contends that victims of crimes committed by illegal immigrants deserve more support. She said:
Every law enforcement agency in the country at the state and local level has a victim advocacy office. It seems only fair you should have something dedicated to those harmed in a crime that is committed by someone here illegally that would not have occurred if that person wasn’t in the country to begin with.