Trump immigrant crime hotline still faces hurdles, pushback

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WASHINGTON | President Donald Trump picked the grandest stage to unveil one of his first immigration initiatives: Appearing before a joint session of Congress a month after taking office, Trump announced the creation of a hotline to help victims of crimes committed by immigrants.

FILE – In this Sept. 2017 file photo, a flag is waved during an immigration rally outside the White House, in Washington. President Donald Trump has touted the creation of an office created to help victims of crimes committed by people in the U.S. illegally. But most of the people calling the Trump administration hotline aren’t calling to get information. They are calling to report their neighbors, colleagues or strangers who they suspect are in the country illegally. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Almost immediately, the Victims of Crime Engagement hotline was immersed in controversy and confusion.

Trump’s critics saw the hotline, known as VOICE, as a cynical stunt that played to his political base, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars and perpetuating the false notion that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens. Others wrongly saw it as a hotline for reporting neighbors, colleagues or strangers they suspect are in the United States illegally.

Two years later, the hotline continues on. Its hurdle is to go beyond the political powder keg of the immigration debate and help crime victims in ways that local courts can’t, such as providing details about whether their assailants have been deported.

“I would stress no matter what opinion someone has, the fact remains that we are here to help victims,” the head of the endeavor, Barbara Gonzalez, told The Associated Press. Gonzalez is a longtime civil servant with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Though ICE is responsible for arresting and deporting people in the U.S. illegally, Gonzalez stresses that her hotline isn’t involved in that. It strives to help victims regardless of their immigration status. Callers aren’t asked their immigration status when they call.

Still, callers are warned that they are being recorded and their names, addresses, phone numbers and other information are collected and may be shared within the Department of Homeland Security. Crime victims who are in the country illegally may be reticent to share that information.

Gonzalez said information on victims is shared with other components on a “need-to-know” basis and their privacy is a concern, but didn’t get into specifics on what was shared. It’s also not clear how long data is stored.

She said before the hotline was created, crime victims couldn’t get information about a suspect’s immigration status. State and local officials can provide details of convictions and sentences, but don’t know whether a suspect has been deported. They don’t have access to ICE data.

That doesn’t sway immigration advocates.

“I think the whole premise of it is racist,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. “It uses their pain and suffering and their legitimate tragedy for a very political goal, which is to create the support for President Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda.”