In the latest Trump administration effort to spotlight crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally, the head of Homeland Security on Tuesday launched a new office to help what he said are forgotten victims.
The office, part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was given a toll-free hotline to report crimes and to offer support to victims, including local contacts with immigration officers and access to social services. It also will focus on crimes by legal immigrants and issue reports.
"All crime is terrible but these victims are unique — and too often ignored," Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly told a news conference.
"They're casualties of crimes that should never have taken place, because the people who victimized them should never have been in the country," Kelly said.
The high-profile rollout of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office, or VOICE, was timed to add luster to President Trump's uneven record before his administration hits the 100-day mark on Saturday. Critics argued that Kelly's announcement was more about politics than public safety.
Advocates for immigrants said the administration is trying to demonize immigrants as criminals and whip up public support for aggressive new deportation operations and billions of dollars in additional spending for border security.
"The overall messaging of this administration is to paint all immigrants as criminals, so immigrants and criminals are mixed into the same mold. It's despicable," said David Leopold, an immigration attorney in Cleveland.
Some Democratic lawmakers also denounced the new operation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency responsible for identifying, tracking and deporting those in the country illegally.
"While the president is desperate for something to show for his first 100 days, inserting this propaganda and prejudice into our nation's Homeland Security policy is a move that history will not look kindly on," said Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
David Lapan, chief spokesman for Homeland Security, said the purpose of the new office is to assist victims, not to attack immigrants.
"It's not to create an image that illegal immigrants are committing a higher level of crime than anyone else, or that they're marauding," Lapin said at the news conference.
Although Kelly talked solely about criminals who are in the country illegally, Lapan said the new office will also handle legal immigrants, who could lose their legal status and be deported if they commit crimes.
In a campaign built in large part on a harsh anti-immigration message, Trump frequently railed about violent crimes committed by people in the country illegally, notably the case of Kathryn Steinle, a San Francisco woman killed last year by a Mexican man who had been deported several times.
Trump announced his plan for the new office in February, telling a joint session of Congress that "we are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media and silenced by special interests."
In three executive orders on immigration, Trump created dozens of other data collection and reporting requirements designed to highlight the costs and crimes associated with immigration, an analysis by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute has found.
The administration has threatened to cut off federal funds to so-called "sanctuary cities" that do not cooperate with immigration enforcement. After a federal judge in San Francisco on Tuesday ordered a freeze on the administration's crackdown, Trump called the ruling "ridiculous" in an early-morning tweet. "See you in the Supreme Court!" he wrote.
Another initiative, to embarrass sanctuary cities by publicizing a weekly list of immigration crimes, was shelved after the first two reports contained errors.
A number of studies of crime statistics have found that immigrants generally commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.
"Research has shown little support for the enduring proposition that increases in immigration are associated with increases in crime," said a report published last year by the Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice. Higher immigration rates are linked to decreases in crimes, the study said.
"Creation of this office is in furtherance of political goals and not public safety goals," said Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, based in Los Angeles.
Attending the news conference was Eric Brady, 52, of Mahomet, Ill., whose 46-year-old wife, LaDonna, or "Jeannie," was killed in a crash on New Years Day by a drunken driver who had been deported three times.
Esteban Juarez-Tomas, a Guatemala native who was in the country illegally, was given a notice to appear by Illinois state police and was released after the accident. He is now a fugitive.
"These are criminal people and they are a public safety hazard," Brady said.