Under Trump, government employees hired at ICE to do community outreach are now fielding phone calls from people trying to report immigrants.
- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy, where she produces breaking news and original reports with a particular focus on immigration, counterterrorism, and border security policy. Previously, Kavitha worked at New York magazine’s Bedford + Bowery blog, CNNMoney, The Associated Press in Italy, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and has freelanced from Italy and Germany for publications like Quartz, Al Jazeera America, OZY, and GlobalPost/PRI. In 2015, she was awarded a Fulbright trip to Germany, as well as a grant from the Heinrich Böll Foundation to report on migration and integration. She also reported from Rwanda and Senegal. Kavitha studied European history at Columbia University and holds a master’s degree in journalism and European studies from New York University. She has studied in Italy and Peru and speaks Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and French.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program launched under Barack Obama to build trust with community groups has been reconfigured to focus on assisting victims of crimes committed by immigrants.
Twenty-one employees hired and trained to work in community outreach have been assigned to work under President Donald Trump’s new Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) Office, which was established in his Jan. 25 executive order on immigration.
The VOICE office provides services to help people track “removable criminal aliens,” a broad designation that could potentially apply to any immigrant eligible for deportation under federal law. The office is also tasked with publishing a quarterly report studying the effects of crimes committed by immigrants, and building partnerships with groups that assist people affected by immigration crime.
“They are being used to carry out responsibilities that they were not hired for,” Sarah Saldaña, the director of ICE from 2014 to early 2017, told Foreign Policy, adding that the original focus of the program “has been subverted to a focus that’s just political.”
The shift is another example of the Trump administration’s turn away from Obama-era policies, according to critics, who see the change as highlighting the agenda of Trump’s chief advisor, Stephen Bannon, and anti-immigration groups like NumbersUSA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and the Center for Immigration Studies.
Saldaña, a political appointee under Obama, oversaw the expansion of ICE’s small community relations program in 2016. The initiative trained and placed a community relations officer in most of the agency’s regional hubs. The community outreach position was intended to serve as a point person to communicate about immigration enforcement, clarify specific raids and deportations, and explain ICE’s priorities.
“Their job was to go meet politicians, Congress people, advocate groups, and local law enforcement,” Saldaña said. “Let them see you as a person, as opposed to big, bad ICE.”
ICE maintains the program has been only slightly expanded in the mandate to include victims of immigration crime. “Community relations officers continue to do engagement the way they had previously,” Richard Rocha, the ICE official overseeing the program, told FP. “The difference is we have added another stakeholder to engage with, and those are victims.”
But Saldaña is concerned that the program is being distorted. According to multiple people familiar with the transition, the community officers saw their jobs significantly altered after Trump took office and are now also fielding many calls that aren’t related to victim assistance.
“They really are taking away their ability to go out in the community and do what it is that we were hoping they would get done,” Saldaña said.
Instead, she said community relations officers now seem to spend much of their time responding to people venting about their frustrations with immigration and racially profiling their neighbors — Saldaña called it a “report your local illegal” hotline.
“From what I understand is being reported, it’s: ‘Oh, I see my next-door neighbor’s landscaper. He looks Mexican. I want to report him. Maybe someone ought to pick him up,’” Saldaña said.
Most ICE offices receive their share of misdirected or strange phone calls. The VOICE website specifies its hotline number is only meant to assist victims, not to report crimes. “A lot of callers initially didn’t understand the purpose of the VOICE office, and now the calls have diminished,” Rocha said. ICE has a separate hotline for reporting crimes related to immigration and customs.
The agency’s community relations work, based on tactics commonly used by law enforcement agencies across the country to build trust and gather crucial intelligence, has long been under attack by GOP hard-liners who cast it as a political tool of the left. In 2012, ICE tried to institute a public advocate, but House Republicans quickly eliminated the role, dubbing it an “illegal alien lobbyist.”
“Somehow, this idea got created by a handful of members of Congress that this is soft,” said John Sandweg, the acting director of ICE from 2013 to 2014.
Yet advocates were also skeptical about the role. Some saw ICE’s community outreach efforts as a lukewarm public relations diversion. “It seemed like the position was more of a symbolic position than anything else,” said Amy Fischer, a spokeswoman for RAICES, a nonprofit that provides immigration services.
But Saldaña maintains that before Trump’s election ICE was poised to greatly expand the outreach program and “remove the curtain” from immigration enforcement activities. Community relations officers were being trained to assuage fear in immigrant communities with facts about the agency’s priorities and activities.
Since 2014, ICE’s focus has changed to deporting violent criminals, gang members, and recent arrivals. Saldaña said this policy opened the door to building trust with a variety of community groups, encouraging them to report serious criminal activity.
About half of ICE’s staff focuses on investigations related to criminal activities such as human trafficking, child pornography, transnational gangs, and money laundering. They frequently rely on information from witnesses and informants, some of whom may not have legal status in the United States.
“I was trying to go out to the communities and explain: ‘We are interested in criminals, not in the family of four who has been here 40 years and has not broken any other laws,’” Saldaña said.
That didn’t happen, however. The community program expansion collided with the 2016 election, in which Trump ran a campaign that focused heavily on clamping down on immigration and highlighting crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
Multiple studies have found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. However, Trump ceaselessly invoked the story of Kathryn Steinle, who was murdered in 2015 by an immigrant who had been ordered deported five times as an example of rampant immigrant crime.
The program barely get off the ground before it was quietly altered. In a Feb. 20 memo, John Kelly, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, directed that “any and all resources that are currently used to advocate on behalf of illegal aliens” be reallocated to VOICE, “and to immediately terminate … outreach or advocacy services to illegal aliens.” The community relations officer’s duties were shifted to the new VOICE office.
The VOICE office allows anyone to sign up for text messages and email notifications to track when an immigrant eligible for removal because of criminal activity is transferred to ICE custody, and when they are deported. A similar program was planned under Obama, but it ran into funding and privacy issues.
Under Trump, the program moved forward swiftly. “Any person who is affected by criminal activity allegedly perpetrated by criminal aliens in the United States” can use the system, according to the website. Users can register anonymously.
Advocacy groups that had been in contact with the community officers in the fall of 2016 are trying to come to terms with the shift to a program that seems intent on associating immigrants with criminality.
Heather Prendergast, chairwoman of the ICE committee at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, was introduced to the Michigan-Ohio community officer in the fall of 2016 and invited her to attend an event scheduled for February. But after Trump was elected, the community officer went silent and canceled her attendance. Prendergast said she didn’t respond to queries about Trump’s immigration executive orders, citing a lack of guidance.
“Her whole job is communicating with the public, and this was exactly the kind of event she would be attending,” Prendergast said. “She just flat-out told the local bar association, ‘I can’t talk to you right now. I’ll talk to you in the future.’”
Rocha, who oversees the VOICE office, did not dispute this account, but said community outreach officers are still supposed to reach out to all groups, including those that advocate for unauthorized immigrants. “We are not excluding any type of stakeholder,” he said. “Anyone who wants to call and talk to us, we will talk to them.”
Saldaña said the community relations officers have been thrown into a job they are unprepared for and are afraid of misconstruing what the Trump administration wants. “There is a lot of fear in the staff,” she said.
Another reason community outreach officers may be retreating is that they have a less reassuring message for those who feel threatened by Trump’s agenda.
As part of his Jan. 25 immigration executive order, Trump expanded deportation priorities to almost anyone in the country without legal status. “This is no longer an illegal alien-friendly environment,” Kelly reiterated at a Senate hearing on Jun. 6.
Though ICE doesn’t have enough resources to conduct mass deportation raids, the new policy means even people who have lived in the United States for decades and have never committed crimes are being deported if they come in contact with ICE.
Sandweg, the former acting ICE director, said that a better system to notify victims that their perpetrators were eventually deported was needed, but not at the cost of community outreach tactics. “No one will come forward and share information with ICE officers if they are scared they will get deported,” he said.
The new guidelines do leave one exception intact. Victims and witnesses who share information to help ICE investigations won’t be questioned about their immigration status. But many are concerned that trust between ICE and local communities is already so damaged that the message isn’t getting out. Cities like Houston, Denver, and Los Angeles have observed a precipitous drop in crime reporting from Hispanic residents since the beginning of 2017.
The community relations officers “had a position under our administration to go out and boast about the agency and what we do and how we are reasonable about our approach,” Saldaña said. “Now they are saying, ‘Go back behind the curtain, surprise people, scare people, don’t give them information.’ That’s just a completely different approach.”
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