In January 2017, one of Donald Trump’s first moves as President was to create a new office that highlighted crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. For four years, the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office, known as VOICE, was wielded by the White House to perpetuate Trump’s false narrative of an immigrant crime wave.
Revoking the order that created VOICE was also one of Joe Biden’s first decisions as President, made just hours after his inauguration. But nearly four months into his term, the Biden Administration has not closed the controversial office. Nor does it plan to.
In a decision that underlines the challenges of unwinding Trump’s immigration legacy, Biden’s Department of Homeland Security plans to keep the VOICE office open, rename it, and refocus its work to better serve victims and witnesses.
“The office name was a terrible misnomer,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told TIME in an interview on May 10. “The fact that it was shaped as it was in the prior Administration is something that we will not continue to have.” Mayorkas says VOICE will serve the functions of similar offices at other law-enforcement agencies, like the Justice Department’s Office of Victim Services and victim assistance units in U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the country.
But it’s not clear what the Biden Administration has done thus far to adjust the work of an office whose collection of crime data and personal stories through a toll-free hotline was used as justification for Trump’s hard-line immigration policies. VOICE hotline staff are still taking calls, its website is still up, and ICE field offices continue to promote it on social media.
“The office continues to assist victims and their families with information and resources,” ICE spokeswoman Danielle Bennett told TIME on April 15. The agency did not respond to TIME’s repeated questions over four weeks about its current operations, staffing or funding levels. During the Trump Administration, VOICE employed at least 27 people and staffed a call center in Laguna Nigel, Calif., with six operators standing by to take calls 12 hours a day. It was allocated $1 million in the 2018 DHS budget. (Subsequent years don’t specify how much of the almost $4 million in ICE’s community engagement office budget is dedicated to VOICE).
VOICE’s enduring presence in a Biden Administration that has committed to rolling back Trump’s immigration policies illustrates the difficulty of that goal. Some of the VOICE office’s tasks—providing victims of crime with additional information about the immigration status of perpetrators, setting up automatic custody status updates, and helping them understand immigration enforcement and deportation laws—are necessary, experts say. At the same time, former DHS and ICE officials, immigration advocates and watchdog groups say those services to victims pale in comparison to the cynical political purposes that the office was created to serve: stoking fears about an alleged immigrant crime wave Trump based his presidential campaign on.
“VOICE was created by anti-immigrant extremists and used by Stephen Miller to further the Trump Administration’s racist immigration policy,” says Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight, a watchdog group which obtained documents that illustrated how the Administration used VOICE as a political weapon. “Given its roots, it is disappointing the Biden Administration intends to preserve the office instead of reassigning any legitimate function of the office to other, less tarnished parts of the government.”
The VOICE office had problems from the start, due in large part to its vaguely-worded mission: to support American victims of “those with a nexus to immigration.” Of those who called the hotline in its first year, only a small fraction actually requested information about the immigration or custody status of alleged criminals, according to call logs released to several news and watchdog organizations through FOIA requests.
Instead, hundreds of callers used the VOICE hotline to denounce neighbors, business rivals and former spouses who they said they suspected of being in the U.S. illegally, according to call logs. One caller from Pennsylvania accused his boss of employing “10-15 illegal aliens” at his landscaping company. Another claimed a legal permanent resident he knew “had committed tax violations.” Others made prank calls reporting space aliens. “Caller stated that he is a victim of a kidnapping by aliens who took him in their UFO yesterday (04/25/2017) and returned him today (04/26/2017),” one operator dutifully noted in a call log.
Those who were victims of crimes committed by immigrants often found it difficult to get the help they thought VOICE was supposed to offer. Elena Maria Lopez first called VOICE in April 2017. She said she had married a Dutch man who soon admitted he had only married her for a green card, then threatened to kill her if she contacted immigration authorities, forcing her to go into hiding. But when she sought assistance from VOICE, “it was almost like it was just a bunch of public-relations professionals,” Lopez says. “It wasn’t legitimate case officers or agents, or anybody with any level of clearance that could really do anything.”
A few months later, Lopez was horrified to find out that she was one of hundreds of people whose private information had mistakenly been released by ICE in call logs posted on its website. The disclosure included information Lopez thought would make it easy to locate her at a protected address for domestic-violence victims set up by authorities in New Jersey, potentially putting her in danger. “At every stage, they actually lied or hid the amount of information that they gave out about me,” she says.
Another woman who spoke to TIME said she went through a seven-week exchange with the office before being told she could not be helped because she was reporting a crime committed by a legal immigrant—a source of confusion for many people who called VOICE. “They literally call themselves a ‘victims of immigration crime’ hotline. It doesn’t say ‘illegal immigration,’” says the woman, who called VOICE to report her ex-husband, a recently naturalized U.S. citizen, for allegedly defrauding her. “Like, what are you?”
The contrast between the vast majority of the cases VOICE handled and those Trump promoted was stark. In the 2017 joint address to Congress in which he announced the creation of the office, Trump described Americans being “viciously gunned down” by immigrants. He painted a gruesome picture of the threat posed by “illegals,” often tying them to MS-13 gang members. “They’ll take a young, beautiful girl, 16, 15, and others, and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die,” he told a rally in Youngstown, Ohio in 2017.
The creation of an office to serve Americans “victimized by criminal aliens” was frequently touted by the White House and Trump’s 2020 campaign as one of his top immigration achievements, even though research studies show that undocumented immigrants are considerably less likely to commit violent crime than native-born U.S. citizens. “Our mission is clear, and that is to acknowledge the exceptional damage caused by criminal illegal aliens and to support the victims of these preventable crimes,” DHS Secretary John Kelly said when he unveiled the VOICE office.
Trump had long showcased so-called “Angel Moms,” parents whose children had been killed by undocumented immigrants. (In 2016, his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway called them “the face of our campaign.”) When these families were invited to the White House and to rallies praising the VOICE office, their tragedies were cited as evidence of the need for Trump’s immigration crackdown. “Your loss will not have been in vain. We will secure our borders,” Trump promised families at a high-profile White House event in June 2018.
Other agencies, including the Justice Department, backed that narrative as well. The U.S. Border Patrol even released a fictionalized video of a Spanish-speaking migrant stabbing and killing a man after fleeing from border agents, complete with actors, dramatic drone footage and fake blood.
Video testimonials released by the VOICE office during the Trump years highlighted cases in step with the administration’s message. “It’s a one-stop place — you call, you have an agent that’s sympathetic, that listens, that understands you are in a trauma,” Sabine Durden, whose son was killed in 2012 in a motorcycle accident involving an undocumented driver, said in a video released in 2018. “They are doing everything in their power to catch my daughter’s killer,” Michelle Root, whose daughter was killed in 2016 by a drunk driver who was an undocumented immigrant, said in another.
VOICE had a valid role to play in keeping victims of violent crimes and their families informed about the status of their cases, according to former U.S. immigration officials, who say the disconnect between the criminal-justice and immigration systems had been a concern long before Trump. In theory, VOICE was supposed to bridge the gap.
“There were valid reasons to have that, to keep families informed,” says Dave Lapan, who served as DHS spokesman during the Trump Administration under Secretary Kelly, later Trump’s second chief of staff. But the stated purpose of the office bore little resemblance to the reality, Lapan says. The clear goal, he adds, was “to showcase immigrants as violent criminals. It was a way to shine a light on it that was consistent with the Stephen Miller narrative of ‘immigrants are bad people,’ highlighting the worst of the worst, and to play into the narrative that immigrants are to be feared.”
Internal calendars and emails obtained by American Oversight through FOIA reveal how the Trump White House used the VOICE office to back up these narratives. They show frequent meetings between VOICE officials and ICE senior adviser Jon Feere, who worked with Miller to highlight, in Feere’s words, “potentially helpful storylines” that would be “critical if we’re to shape the narrative” linking immigrants to violent crime. (Feere did not respond to a request for comment.) The documents also show meetings with right-wing immigration groups, which often flagged cases to Miller, who in turn forwarded them to the Justice Department.
The VOICE office was an integral part of the effort to “trawl for anecdotes to then trumpet and publicize because there wasn’t good data to demonstrate that there’s a massive problem with non-citizen criminality,” says Elizabeth Cohen, an immigration expert and political science professor at Syracuse University.
In internal emails, Miller praised Justice Department officials for collecting stories featuring immigrant criminals. For a while, the White House even sent reporters a weekly email titled “Immigration Crime Stories Round Up.” In an April 2018 memo to ICE field offices in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, DHS officials asked officers to put together “narratives” that drew out “the most egregious cases” in which local authorities had refused to turn in immigrants who had gone on to commit a crime.
Miller reportedly pushed for VOICE to be more visible at White House events, leading to pushback from some DHS officials, who argued that VOICE was supposed to support victims who reached out to them, not publicize criminal activity by immigrants. The White House also flagged immigrant crime stories that appeared on conservative media to the office. “Is VOICE working on this?” reads one 2018 email from a White House communications aide to Miller and Feere, attaching a story from the Epoch Times, a pro-Trump media outlet which frequently spreads right-wing conspiracies, headlined “Man Charged in Deadly Alabama Hit and Run Is Illegal Immigrant Who Was Deported Twice.”
These efforts to find and publicize crime data to back up Trump’s policies were deeply ingrained in the Administration’s immigration strategy. As Trump advisers weighed ending humanitarian protections for thousands of Haitian immigrants—over the objections of senior State Department officials—Kathy Nuebel Kovarik, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer who later served as ICE’s chief of staff, repeatedly asked for details on how often Haitians with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) had been convicted of crimes, and asked officials to “dig” for evidence that conditions on the island had improved.
“We should also find any reports of criminal activity by any individual with TPS,” she said in April 2017 emails obtained by the Associated Press. “Even though it’s only a snapshot and not representative of the entire situation, we need more than ‘Haiti is really poor’ stories.”
Under Biden, DHS has struck a markedly different tone. When a Republican lawmaker at a March 17 hearing asked how many innocent Americans had to be victimized by “illegals” before he would take action, Mayorkas, the first Latino and first immigrant to head DHS, responded that he found “that question to be extraordinarily disrespectful to the men and women of Homeland Security.”
Biden has moved to roll back Trump’s restrictive immigration policies, from boosting refugee admissions, halting border-wall construction and safeguarding so-called “Dreamers” to rescinding Trump’s travel ban.
But erasing the long-term impact of Trump’s policies has proven tricky. The Biden Administration has scrambled to contain the biggest surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in two decades, including a record number of teenagers and children traveling without their parents. As the White House staunchly refused to call it a “crisis,” Republicans seized on the issue as a political cudgel to attack Biden and Democrats with an eye on the 2022 midterm elections. And four years of relentlessly pushing propaganda tying immigration to crime leaves a mark that won’t be neatly erased by a new Administration and a new name for the VOICE office, former officials and immigration experts say.
Initiatives like the VOICE office also helped drive distrust in ICE to new levels at a time when the agency needed to build relationships with immigrant communities, says John Sandweg, the former acting director of ICE and acting general counsel of DHS in the Obama Administration. The damage it caused is “going to take years to repair,” he tells TIME. “And I think it’s really unfair, when you’re looking at things like VOICE, to say that this was the agency’s doing, when quite frankly…they were following the directives of the elected President of the United States.”
As for the future of VOICE, Sandweg thinks the office’s reputation is beyond repair. “They need to close that office out. It was a political gimmick,” says Sandweg. “Honestly, it’s a fake office designed for political purposes, like a lot of what Trump did with ICE.”
For now, the office’s organizational structure, staffing and funding levels remain opaque, despite several advocacy organizations’ efforts to sue for them. DHS and ICE declined to provide further details about the office’s operations under the Biden Administration, or if they plan to change the resources committed to it. The office fielded 753 calls in 2020, according to a year-end report from ICE, an average of two a day.
The decision to keep the office open may have its own political consequences. “Keeping that office open under any name is a betrayal to the communities that worked and organized to help elect President Biden,” says Andrew Case, senior counsel at LatinoJustice, a national civil rights advocacy group that has been involved in a years-long lawsuit to obtain documents about the VOICE office. “I mean to put Cesar Chavez’ bust on your desk when you move in and then do this is just atrocious.”
—With reporting by Brian Bennett and Alana Abramson/Washington