Since announcing his candidacy, President Donald Trump has consistently pushed the racist narrative that undocumented immigrants—from Mexico in particular—are inherently dangerous; they are “rapists” and “drug dealers” flooding across “open borders.” This despite the fact that undocumented immigrants are less apt to commit crimes than U.S. citizens, and migration of Mexican nationals has been declining since 2012.
Still, programs put forward by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continue to perpetuate this rhetoric about migrants, which academics and advocates say has the effect of “othering” them—treating immigrants as intrinsically different and alien to U.S. citizens—thus making them easier to criminalize and deport. As Douglas Epps and Rich Furman of the University of Washington Tacoma explain in their paper “The ‘Alien Other’: A Culture of Dehumanizing Immigrants in the United States,” undocumented immigrants face othering in three realms. “They are physically excluded by means of detention and deportation practices, socially excluded as a result of the labels and harmful myths branded by mainstream society, and civically excluded due to their inability to participate in the rights given to those living in the country who have been granted citizenship.”
In one of the most recent attempts at othering migrants, in April the administration launched a public database as part of its Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, effectively making the personal information of migrants publicly available to anyone with an internet connection. Previously, noncitizens’ data were protected under a 2009 Obama-era policy change. But in one of his executive orders, Trump mandated that noncitizens who are not green card holders could be subjected to having their names and personal information released and shared without their knowledge or consent.
The DHS Victim Information Notification Exchange (DHS-VINE) database recently received criticism for including people who are considered part of protected classes, such as children and victims of domestic violence. Advocates are concerned about how the combination of the VOICE office, DHS-VINE database, and near-obsessive push to end sanctuary cities attempts to make mass deportations more palatable.
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Paromita Shah, associate director of the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, told Rewire that it’s her belief that Trump’s “ultimate goal” with DHS-VINE is to put a stop to so-called sanctuary cities by using things like the database to “drum up” the idea of “super-predators,” a racist term first applied to Black youth in the 1990s.
“This is just a mass release of information that selectively supports [ICE’s] enforcement efforts, and honestly, this may be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the ramifications of removing Privacy Act protections,” Shah said. “There’s a lot we don’t know yet, but what we do know is that people will have a very hard time protecting their personal information from being shared and sadly, no one in the administration seems to be concerned with how this information can be used in a retaliatory way.”
This is all being done under the pretense of public safety, and little can be done to hold DHS, ICE, or the Trump administration accountable because, as Shah said, how do you get accountability from an anti-immigrant system and an administration that deals in propaganda?
“People may begin to feel as if they’re being hunted down—and they are, by the government, but now it can be from random people on the internet,” Shah said. “We really need to understand what Trump is saying here; he’s saying that non-citizens, who shouldn’t be here in the first place, don’t have rights and they’re not part of our communities. That is very dangerous fiction, because it sends the message that we can do whatever we want to this group of people. It’s not just mean-spirited, it strikes at the dignity of being a human being.”
Enhancing Safety—But for Whom?
President Trump’s VOICE office was first outlined in the same January 25 executive order that removed Privacy Act protections from undocumented immigrants, but its creation was a long-time coming.
While on the campaign trail, Trump routinely uplifted the stories of members of an organization called The Remembrance Project, which is comprised of family members whose loved ones were allegedly killed by undocumented people. The nonprofit organization purports to educate and raise awareness about “the epidemic of killings of Americans by individuals who should not have been in the country in the first place.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group 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.” Members of these families were also present at Trump’s first congressional address, and he has credited his interactions with them as the reason for his VOICE office.
According to DHS, the VOICE office “assists victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens.” The database is intended to “help victims track the immigration custody status of illegal alien perpetrators of crime.” A reasonable person would assume, based on DHS’ language around DHS-VINE, that only “criminal aliens” are included in the database and are only searchable by victims of alleged crimes. DHS does nothing to dissuade people of this notion, writing that “those who have been charged with a crime, and those convicted of a crime” are included in the database.
What DHS fails to mention is that through the use of anti-immigrant executive orders, Trump has effectively criminalized each of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States, while also removing their Privacy Act protections.
“Agencies shall, to the extent consistent with applicable law, ensure that their privacy policies exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act [of 1974] regarding personally identifiable information,” reads section 14 of Trump’s January 25 executive order to “enhance public safety.”
When the implementation memo was released, legal experts and immigration advocates expressed confusion as to why the administration would take such an unusual step. The Trump administration provided no reasoning for its decision to remove these protections.
In the months since—and with the April launch of the VOICE office—the reason seems to have become clearer: to place every undocumented immigrant in ICE custody into a searchable database that allows users to track developments in their cases. Their personal information—including full name, country of origin, age, and current location—is accessible to the public.
An ICE spokesperson confirmed to Rewire that “information regarding individuals in ICE custody is available via VINE within hours of an [sic] person’s book-in” and that DHS-VINE provides information on all individuals whose “case is not protected by law or policy.”
According to DHS, the individuals eligible to receive custody status notifications are “victims and witnesses associated with criminal aliens charged or convicted of a crime, victim advocates, who are individuals with a legal responsibility to act on behalf of a victim or witness (e.g., attorneys, parents, legal guardians), and individuals acting at the request of a victim or witness.” After affirming “under penalty of perjury” that the person requesting access to this information falls under at least one of those categories, they are then able to access information on people currently detained without having to provide any additional proof of eligibility for obtaining this information. It seems as if any user who registers with VINE can receive custody status updates via phone, text, and email should a particular person in detention get transferred to another facility or have status changes in their “criminal case information.”
While ICE has maintained that DHS-VINE enables U.S. citizens to access information “they need to feel secure,” the database has the potential to put undocumented immigrants in harm’s way. Anti-immigrant hate speech has become normalized, and bigoted vigilantes are emboldened, as the rise in hate-based violence proves. What’s to stop someone from tracking the movements of an undocumented immigrant and appearing at the doors of a detention center when they are released from ICE custody? DHS-VINE has already put vulnerable people in jeopardy.
ICE Under Fire
In April, an immigration attorney noticed that children were included in the public DHS-VINE system, including babies just a few months old and unaccompanied minors—children who came to the United States without their parents and are currently in group homes.
DHS officials said the release of children’s names was a lapse in policy that arose because a filter was not applied to the data made available on the website, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“The Department of Homeland Security’s policy is and remains to protect the information of minors in our custody,” said Gillian M. Christensen, a spokesperson for the agency.
The agency almost immediately fixed the problem, but it should be noted that many unaccompanied minors from Central America are fleeing violence in their countries of origin, including death threats from local gangs. Because of this temporary “lapse in policy,” those in ICE custody had their pictures, location, and other sensitive information related to their asylum cases accessible on a public database, thanks to the federal agency entrusted with their protection.
“The idea is that if you have these people on a list and you have the president of the United States saying these are dangerous, violent people, it creates a presumption in the public that without question, these people are criminals,” Shah said. “This creates a politically volatile system where if you defend the people on the list, if you fight the creation of this list, you’re siding against America and with violent, ‘illegal’ criminals—even if the people on the list aren’t dangerous, even if they’re not violent criminals, even if the list is flawed and wrong.”
In May, the advocacy groups the Tahirih Justice Center, ASISTA, the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, and Casa de Esperanza demanded that ICE remove the federally protected information of survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual assault, and other crimes who were “inadvertently” included in DHS-VINE.
As Rewire reported, these crime victims are eligible for immigration relief under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, which gives them special legal protections in terms of confidentially, regardless of citizenship status. The Tahirih Justice Center, a national advocacy organization that provides legal services to immigrant and refugee women, was the first to discover that the database included the federally protected information of girls and women who were victims of crimes.
In a letter to ICE, the Tahirih Justice Center reminded the federal immigration agency of the larger implications for victims whose information was shared on the database. “These confidentiality provisions are essential, since perpetrators may try to locate and harm victims, undermine and interfere with their cases in order to maintain power and control, or jeopardize victims’ eligibility for relief,” the letter read.
The organization requested ICE “immediately remove” the survivors from the database, and if that wasn’t possible, it asked ICE to “take down the entire database no later than Friday, May 26, 2017.” ICE did not respond until July 14.
“Any disclosure of federally protected information that may have occurred in the context of the DHS-VINE system … was completely inadvertent,” ICE’s letter to the Tahirih Justice Center said. “Any protected information that may have been inadvertently disclosed in the past is no longer available on the DHS-VINE database.”
When asked by Rewire to specify the steps that have been taken to ensure the safety of federally protected information, an ICE spokesperson would only say “that routine and frequent checks have been implemented to prevent the release of protected information.”
Historical Precedent for Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Policies
For the past seven months, a bulk of those detained and deported under the Trump administration have been what ICE refers to as “illegal re-entrants and immigration violators,” people who have re-entered the country after being deported (a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison) or those who are simply in the United States without authorization.
In the first weeks of the Trump administration, immigration arrests rose 32.6 percent because, as the Washington Post reported, “newly empowered” federal agents were “intensifying their pursuit of not just undocumented immigrants with criminal records, but also thousands of ‘illegal immigrants’ who have been otherwise law-abiding.” Arrests of undocumented immigrants with no criminal records have more than doubled, according to the Washington Post.
Trump’s targeting of nonviolent offenders effectively “paints an entire group as public safety threats for offenses that are more likely to be traffic violations than rape and murder,” Politico reported. Yet, the president continues to conflate undocumented immigrants with violent offenders and dangerous gang members, as further evidenced by a recent speech in which he centered the world’s most violent gang as a way of justifying his immigration policies.
Over the course of a single, controversial speech on Long Island last month in which he appeared to encourage police brutality, Trump repeatedly conflated violent criminals with undocumented immigrants—this time focusing on the transnational gang MS-13.
Trump’s overarching message was that lawmakers must do more to combat ‘illegal immigration,’ saying that “for many years,” MS-13 “exploited America’s weak borders and immigration enforcement.” The president blamed “weak political leadership” and “police who are not allowed to do their job because they have a pathetic mayor.”
Trump seamlessly jumped back and forth between remarks calling for stricter border security and comments asserting that undocumented gang members stabbed, raped, and murdered young people, the Washington Post reported.
“[Gang members] transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into blood stained killing fields. They’re animals. We cannot tolerate as a society the spilling of innocent, young, wonderful, vibrant people,” Trump said.
The Washington Post reported that Trump used his speech to urge “passage of laws to increase penalties on immigrants who enter the United States illegally, speed up deportations, and penalize sanctuary cities that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts.” His repeated message seemed to be that sanctuary cities are at least partly responsible for the spread of gang violence at the hands of undocumented immigrants. What Trump did not mention was that MS-13 began in Los Angeles and became a transnational street gang because of failed U.S. policy in Central America.
Sanctuary cities have become the center of Trump’s immigration crackdown. In order to carry out his mass deportations, Trump and the Department of Justice are demanding law enforcement agencies ramp up their participation in immigration enforcement by becoming the front line of defense against, among others, those with DUIs or who are caught jumping subway turnstiles. These are the “criminal aliens” Trump and ICE are routinely referencing: nonviolent offenders, if they’ve committed any offense at all.
Like Trump’s VOICE Office and DHS-VINE, his incessant talk of sanctuary cities centers on the narrative that undocumented immigrants are different than U.S. citizens; they are inherently violent criminals or criminals-in-the-making who are harming the economy and endangering U.S. lives. Trump’s narrative is ahistorical; it’s as if “illegal immigration” and “criminal aliens” are new, pressing issues facing the country, but there is a historical precedent for his comments.
Nancy Foner, a professor of sociology at Hunter College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York, told Rewire that Trump’s repeated campaign trail references to Kathryn Steinle, a U.S. citizen allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant, served as sort of a “red flag” for Foner.
“It was clear that he was deeply invested in creating this notion among Americans that undocumented immigrants are dangerous and should be feared because they commit violent crimes,” said Foner, whose work focuses primarily on immigration. “We know this isn’t true, but Trump has really upped the ante in his use of the word ‘criminal’ and how he applies it. Trump distorts facts to fit his narrative and in his administration, being here without authorization makes you a criminal.”
Foner points to slavery as the most obvious form of the United States’ use of othering to subjugate an entire group of people. There was also the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned Chinese labor worker immigrants from being able to enter the country. It was the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from coming to the United States, and it wasn’t repealed by the government until 1943.
The United States has a history of “profound racism and nativism,” Foner said, and the starting point for “allowing the horrible treatment of others” was rhetoric about how the group of people being targeted for unjust treatment were less than us or dangerous or harmful to the country in some way.
Foner told Rewire that what Trump is doing is by no means a new strategy, but it continues to be a dangerous one. “When the most powerful person in the country uses anti-immigrant rhetoric, it has the power to legitimize it and makes people feel legitimate in openly expressing similar sentiments, or perhaps worse,” Foner said. “It’s insidious and deeply harmful, not to mention regressive.”
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric not only dehumanizes undocumented immigrants, priming the public for severe, anti-immigrant policies, but it also serves the president. Foner said that Trump talks about little else outside of immigration because it’s his way of playing to his base.
“Trump appealed to his base because of his anti-immigrant sentiments, but he’s not really delivering on what he promised to them. The jobs, health care, the wall, he’s not delivered, but what he can do is add fuel the fire that their fears of immigration and the changing demographics are legitimate and it’s the reason why they’re not getting their fair share,” Foner said.
“This is a deliberate strategy. This is what he offers. This is all he offers. For America’s sake, I’m concerned about the legitimizing of such hatred, but my biggest fear is how this will affect the lives of the undocumented.”