DHS Secretary John Kelly announced the office in front of victims of immigrant-related crimes
The move continues an effort by the Trump administration to focus on the criminal aspects of immigration
The Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday unveiled a new office to focus on victims of crimes linked to immigrants – the fulfillment of President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration.
In announcing the office, the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, or VOICE, at an event stocked with families of victims, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly emphasized the goal is to give resources and support to families that he said previously felt unheard.
Trump has repeatedly focused on criminal elements in public statements about immigrants, including Trump’s famous presidential announcement speech in which he referred to Mexicans as criminals and “rapists.”
Kelly said the point of the effort is to say that any crimes committed by undocumented immigrants could be prevented if they were never allowed in the US. He told the relatives of crime victims in the front row, “my heart goes out to you.”
“All crime is terrible, but these victims as represented here are unique – and too often ignored,” Kelly said. “They are casualties of crimes that should never have taken place – because the people who victimized them often times should never have been in the country.”
The office will also cover cover victims of any crime with an immigration nexus, officials said. That would cover any potentially removable individual, which include legal permanent residents and visa holders who commit crimes.
The executive order, signed in January, also called for the office to issue reports once a quarter “studying the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens present in the United States.”
Officials said the office is being stood up with resources that all existed previously, but centralizes them in one place to make it easier for victims to find.
“Until today, those victimized at the hands of illegal aliens have had no point of contact in our federal government dedicated to this issue and to them. Families would call and would send letters all over Washington hoping that someone in some agency would respond,” Kelly said, acknowledging several of the affected family members in the audience by name.
Critics say VOICE addresses a problem that doesn’t really exist. Pro-immigration organizations point to their published studies that show immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than the general public. The American Immigration Council studied the census numbers from 1980 to 2010, and found that among men ages 18 to 49, immigrants were one-half to one-fifth as likely to be incarcerated as those born in the United States.
An existing community engagement office will remain in place, but many of its staff and resources will now be under VOICE.
All 21 community relations officers that exist now will be assigned to VOICE while continuing their other responsibilities, and 27 existing victims assistance specialists under Homeland Security Investigations will also support the office. There will also be support from an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement call center. An ICE official said the agency is “using existing resources” to determine what needs are and then will add next steps from there.
“We’re not sure of the volume that we’re going to see here, so this is a first step,” the official said. “This is not what the office will end up looking like. This may look different in a year, this may look different in two years, but this is a first step.”
The office will also not exclude helping undocumented immigrants who are themselves victims of crimes, an FAQ distributed at the event – where Kelly did not take questions – made clear.
“Data collected by the agency is focused on the records of those ICE arrests or removes, not on victims,” the document said. “ICE will not inquire as to a victim’s immigration status through VOICE.”
One new creation for the office is the Victim Information and Notification Exchange, or VINE, system that will allow people to register online to get information on specific criminals. The system will require them to declare themselves as a victim and will not have further verification on who is using the system.
This is similar to a system ICE has had for 10 years which allowed a manual registration system for victims to register with them to get updates on the crimes and criminals they have an interest in. The number of people registered for that over the past 10 years has been roughly 400-450, officials said.
CNN’s David Shortell and Jessica Schneider contributed to this report.