Most of the attention being paid to the two memoranda from the Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly that implements President Trump’s executive order on Immigration has focused on the elements of the directives that are clear and unambiguous. But immigrants’ rights activists are also worried about one section of the new instruction to the Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that is rather vague.
The two memoranda, dated February 20, order numerous concrete moves by the agencies that enforce the country’s immigration laws. Both ICE and Customs and Border Protection have been instructed to build new detention facilities near the border with Mexico, presumably to accommodate a large influx of detainees. Immigration officers are given much wider latitude to initiate deportation proceedings, and plans are in process to ship undocumented immigrants back to their home countries before a court has heard their cases. And ICE is instructed to hire 10,000 new officers.
All of this and more has generated widespread angst in immigrant communities across the country. But another part of one of the orders is worrying immigrant activists who fear that it could have implications beyond run-of-the-mill arrests and deportations.
Section D of the memo titled “Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest” contains a directive for the establishment of a program meant to provide help and information to people who have been victims of criminal activity by undocumented immigrants. Known as the Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement (VOICE) Office, the program would be funded, at least in part, by eliminating services that provide assistance to undocumented individuals.
“Criminal aliens routinely victimize Americans and other legal residents,” the memo reads. “Often, these victims are not provided adequate information about the offender, the offender's immigration status, or any enforcement action taken by ICE against the offender.”
Therefore, Kelly instructs ICE to create the VOICE office and to “reallocate any and all resources that are currently used to advocate on behalf of illegal aliens (except as necessary to comply with a judicial order) to the new VOICE office, and to immediately terminate the provision of such outreach or advocacy services to illegal aliens."
What exactly that means, though, is unclear to experts in immigration law and policy.
William A. Stock, the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said that the language might refer to the remnants of the Office of the Public Advocate, a short-lived unit in ICE created to “serve as a point of contact for individuals, including those in immigration proceedings, NGOs, and other community and advocacy groups, who have concerns, questions, recommendations or important issues they would like to raise.”
Republicans in Congress immediately moved to defund the office, which many considered to be a taxpayer-funded advocate for illegal immigrants. Some of its operations were folded into the Office of Community Engagement within ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations.
“Some Republican House members, particularly Diane Black of Tennessee, accused the Public Advocate office of being able to ‘lobby for illegal immigrants, and since it was defunded, some anti-immigration advocates have charged that is what the Office of Community Engagement does,” said Stock.
He added, “In my experience, what OCE actually does is try to facilitate communication between ICE and communities of US citizens who may be affected by enforcement and removal actions, such as local law enforcement, local and state officials, and the broader community.”
Undermining OCE, he said, in combination with an administration bent on visibly accelerating the rate of deportation, could lead to unfair proceedings.
“I am concerned that pressure on ICE and CBP to achieve high removal numbers and create a climate of ‘enforcement only’ immigration actions will cause officers and leaders to give less consideration to humanitarian considerations and due process than is necessary for a fair removal process,” Stock said.
Other immigrants’ rights activists said they were worried about how far into the system the directive to eliminate “advocacy” and “outreach” might reach.
Avideh Moussavian, a policy attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, pointed out that the language in the administration’s policy pronouncements goes out of its way to describe a climate of criminality in the immigrant community.
“So much of the emphasis of the executive order and these implementing memos really reflects a strongly held belief that Americans are somehow at greater security risk because of the presence of non-citizens immigrants.”
In fact, Moussavian said, illegal immigrants are disproportionately victims of crime, because perpetrators assume they will be reluctant to go to the authorities.
“Given their lack of status they are targeted,” she said. “Every day we hear stories of immigrants being targeted as victims of crime based on the perception that they are undocumented immigrants.”
There are actually special non-immigrant visas available to victims of crime. “T” visas are issued to some victims of human trafficking, while “U” visas are available to undocumented victims of various crimes in the US including domestic violence, assault, rape, involuntary servitude and more.
One question troubling activists now is whether “advocacy” and “outreach” include making victims of human trafficking aware of their potential eligibility for a T visa and providing them guidance? Or providing similar help to domestic abuse victims regarding their eligibility for a U visa?
The language in the implementing order is unclear, and ICE did not reply to a request for clarification.
“While I know of no specific effort to curtail programs that make victims aware of immigration relief such as T and U visas, it is also true that letting them know of such relief and having them apply for it could slow down removal operations in those cases, which would harm the administration’s enforcement priority,” said Stock of AILA.