Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly on Wednesday unveiled a new effort to aid victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, catapulting the Trump administration into another pitched battle over whether the president is deploying federal resources to demonize foreign-born residents who are in this country illegally.
Kelly said the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office, or VOICE, will provide custody status, release dates and other information to victims, witnesses and their representatives. He said there is “nothing but goodness” in his intentions — a claim immigrant advocates disputed.
“We are giving people who are victimized by illegal aliens for the first time a voice of their own,” Kelly said, gesturing to crime victims gathered at Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s D.C. headquarters. “They’re casualties of crimes that should never have taken place because the people who victimized them should never have been here in our country.”
President Trump called for the victims office in a January executive order. The launch came a day after a federal judge in San Francisco temporarily blocked another part of that same order, which tried to deny federal funds to cities that refuse to cooperate with immigration agents.
On Wednesday, advocates for immigrants signaled that they might file a lawsuit to block the victim office as well. They said they fear that the office will be an extension of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail and could create the perception that immigrants disproportionately are public-safety threats, which could violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
“This really isn’t about helping victims,” said Brent Wilkes, chief executive of the League of United Latin American Citizens, which is considering the lawsuit. “It’s really about trying to vilify the immigrant population in this country and using that to their political advantage.”
Trump’s executive order also called for quarterly reports on crime committed by undocumented immigrants, though it is unclear when the government will begin producing those reports. Advocates for immigrants say research has shown that immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than people born in this country.
Separate from the political debate, some advocates and officials say the VOICE office could fill a troubling gap that emerges when ICE officers place criminals in immigration detention centers after they are released from prison.
Crime victims can track their assailants’ whereabouts while assailants are in state or federal prison. But once they have been put in immigration detention, far less information is publicly available. Victims often cannot tell when or whether their assailants are being released from immigration detention or deported.
Some are released in the United States because their homelands refuse to take them back. In some cases, they target their victims all over again. For example, Qian Wu, a Queens woman, was murdered in 2010 by a man she thought had been deported to China. Instead, he was released in the United States and returned to New York to stalk her.
ICE has a small and little-used victim notification system that, as of Wednesday, had 450 to 500 victims registered. The VOICE office will expand that system and automate it, allowing victims, witnesses and their lawyers to sign up to get phone, text or email messages when individuals are taken into custody, released or deported. There is a toll-free number where victims can get information and access to resources.
Officials said they would provide such information to all victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, without inquiring about the victims’ immigration status.
The relatives of victims who attended the program’s launch Wednesday also have appeared with Trump on the campaign trail.
They included Michelle Root, the Iowa mother of Sarah Root, a 21-year-old struck and killed last year, allegedly by a drunk driver in the United States illegally. Michelle Root said she struggled to get information from ICE about the suspect, Eswin Mejia of Honduras, who posted bail in his criminal case and disappeared.
“I’m elated that the VOICE has started,” she said.
Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, said she hoped the new program would treat victims equally, regardless of their legal status.
“If you’re a victim, you’re a victim,” said Fernandez.