President Trump in Tuesday’s address to a joint session of Congress said his administration would publicize crimes committed by undocumented immigrants, whose crime rate is lower than that of the general U.S. population.
Trump announced the creation of Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE), an office that will be housed within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and dedicated to supporting American victims of crimes that were committed by undocumented immigrants.
“We must support the incredible men and women of law enforcement. And we must support the victims of crime,” Trump said during his address to Congress. “We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests.”
Other than publishing a regularly released list of crimes committed by immigrants, what VOICE will provide to alleged victims is largely unknown. The office was included in Trump’s anti-immigrant executive order. Originally intended to operate as part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency within DHS, the executive order said the office would “provide proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services to victims of crimes committed by removable aliens and the family members of such victims. This office shall provide quarterly reports studying the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens present in the United States.”
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The Republican anti-immigrant VOICE initiative will be funded with resources “currently used to advocate on behalf of illegal aliens,” according to DHS Secretary John Kelly. Reports the office will release on crimes committed by undocumented people have drawn comparisons to the “black crime” section on white nationalist site Breitbart News, created in response to the Movement for Black Lives. Trump’s chief White House strategist, Stephen Bannon, used to lead Breitbart and is the reported author of Trump’s anti-immigrant executive orders.
Trump, like many GOP members of Congress, has relied on anecdotal evidence and information from anti-immigrant hate groups to illustrate that undocumented people are inherently violent and responsible for much of the crime in the United States. The anti-immigrant hate group the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) has ties to eugenics and white supremacist organizations. The group’s founder, John Tanton, is credited with creating the modern anti-immigrant movement, and FAIR is a primary source of information for Trump.
Trump cited FAIR’s anti-immigrant propaganda during his Republican National Convention speech, in which he referred to undocumented immigrants as “illegal” and characterized them as violent and murderous. The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which evolved from a FAIR program, is another anti-immigrant organization regularly cited by Trump and used as a reference on his campaign website for his formal immigration policies.
But if facts are any indication, the VOICE office won’t have much on which to report. As the Washington Post reported, U.S. Sentencing Commission data shows homicides are a small percentage of the crimes committed by noncitizens, whether or not they are undocumented. The Congressional Research Service found the vast majority of undocumented people do not fit in the category of aggravated felons, whose crimes include murder, drug trafficking, or illegal trafficking of firearms. The New York Times reported that “several studies, over many years, have concluded that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.”
Present at Trump’s first congressional address were family members of people who had allegedly been killed by undocumented immigrants. Trump, since the start of his presidential campaign, has routinely given space to alleged victims of undocumented people.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked in a statement why Trump would use “tragedies to stir up divisions by race and nationality,” as indicated in his Tuesday night address to members of Congress.
“But let’s be clear about what Donald Trump is doing tonight in inviting family members who saw a loved one murdered by an undocumented immigrant,” Sanders said. “He is stirring up fear and hatred against immigrants and trying to divide our nation. That is his political strategy and we must not allow him to get away with it.”
The president has worked closely with the Remembrance Project, which, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), has been “an active figure in anti-immigrant circles for half a decade” and attempts to “drum up support for anti-immigrant stances and policies.” The organization’s co-founder, Maria Espinoza, has appeared in white nationalist publications, at white nationalist gatherings, and her organization has received $25,000 in funding from a Tanton group.
Trump has casually conflated immigration with terrorism and crime, characterizing undocumented immigrants as “criminals.” In his presidential announcement speech in June 2015, Trump infamously said Mexican migrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Trump has said he will have “zero tolerance” for “criminal aliens,” and his administration has drastically expanded the definition of “criminal,” setting the stage for mass deportations. Nearly 700 undocumented people were detained last month in nationwide immigration sweeps. ICE characterized those targeted as “criminal aliens,” “illegal re-entrants,” and “immigration fugitives.”
However, many of those targeted had no criminal record and in one instance, a person was seeking protection from domestic violence. This was the case of a transgender woman in El Paso, Texas, who was detained by ICE at a hearing in which she sought a protective order against her abusive boyfriend.
It’s vulnerable undocumented immigrants who need protection from crimes committed by Americans. Undocumented people are often exploited in the workplace and threats of deportation are used against workers who try to unionize, complain about safety standards, or have their wages stolen, the Guardian reported. Also, because local law enforcement agencies often work with ICE and participate in immigration enforcement programs, undocumented people don’t report violent crimes they experience, including physical and sexual assault, because they fear being reported to ICE.