In the middle of his first address to Congress Tuesday night, Donald Trump pointed out “four very brave Americans” in the audience. The people — Jamiel Shaw, Jessica Davis, and Susan Oliver and her daughter Jenna — all had something in common, Trump said: One of their relatives had been killed by someone who entered the country illegally.
To help their families and those like them, Trump is creating a new office within Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It’s called VOICE, or the Office of Victims of Crimes Committed by Removable Aliens. “We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests,” Trump told Congress.
Although Trump’s speech may have been the first time many Americans heard about VOICE, it wasn’t the first time the president announced his plan to create the office, which has its roots in the Remembrance Project, a Houston-based nonprofit dedicated to bringing attention to the victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
The president first outlined his plan for VOICE in a Jan. 25 executive order, which focused on keeping “the American people” safe through stricter enforcement of immigration procedures like deportations. Still, that order was vague about what the office would do. Little concrete information emerged about its duties until last month, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) — which oversees ICE — released a memo detailing its plans for fulfilling the executive order’s promises.
“Criminal aliens routinely victimize Americans and other legal residents,” DHS head John Kelly wrote in that memo. “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.”
The VOICE office would aim to change that by giving victims and their families the information, as long as it doesn’t violate the law or threaten national security. The office would also keep them updated throughout any criminal or deportation processes the undocumented immigrant offender might face.
To pay for the new initiative, Kelly instructed ICE to end any of its efforts to advocate on behalf of undocumented immigrants and to direct the funds used to pay for those efforts into the VOICE office — although it’s unclear exactly what those efforts were. As of two weeks ago, ICE was still figuring out how to establish and staff the Office, according to a statement provided to VICE News.
In response to numerous VICE News questions about the VOICE office, ICE spokesperson Jennifer Elzea issued a statement saying, in part, “The men and women comprising the VOICE office will be guided by a singular, straightforward mission — to support victims of crime committed by immigration violators through access to information and other resources, as needed.”
The Jan. 25 order also mandated that the VOICE office would be responsible for providing a quarterly report about “the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens.” Kelly’s memo didn’t specifically mention that duty, but DHS will fulfill another element of the executive order: It will compile and publish a weekly list of charges, arrests, and convictions of undocumented immigrants who are released from law enforcement custody, complete with where each offense occurred and why each immigrant was let go.
How do undocumented immigrants affect U.S. crime rates?
Many observers have argued that the VOICE initiative, in addition to a weekly list of immigrants’ crimes, would mislead people into believing that immigrants are responsible for a disproportionate amount of American crime.
Despite Trump’s claims, research broadly shows undocumented people are either less likely or no more likely to commit crimes than Americans born in the United States. And studies point out that as immigration has risen over the past few decades, crime rates have decreased in the United States.
“There’s no way I can mess with the numbers to get a different conclusion,” Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, told the New York Times.
Who pushed for the VOICE office?
This isn’t the first time Trump has brought such people like Shaw, Davis, and the Olivers to events to illustrate the so-called dangers of immigration. Thanks to the efforts of the Remembrance Project, families who lost relatives at the hands of undocumented immigrants often joined him on campaign stops.
Founded in 2009 by Maria Espinoza, the Remembrance Project unites and advocates for the families of people killed by undocumented immigrants, which the group calls “stolen-lives families.” For years, it received little recognition from mainstream politicians, largely because of its insistence that immigrants are dangerous criminals responsible for an “epidemic of killings across the country,” as the Remembrance Project’s website reads.
Then Trump came along.
During the presidential campaign, Espinoza sent out an open letter to the Republican candidates asking them to promise to create a national government program that would, among other things, provide legal representation to families seeking restitution from their relatives’ undocumented killers.
Trump was the only candidate who responded, according to the Remembrance Project website. And when Trump signed that Jan. 25 executive order creating the VOICE office, Espinoza was in the Oval Office, standing at Kelly’s side.
Last week, Espinoza told VICE News that she plans to open up a Washington, D.C., branch of the Remembrance Project, a sign of the group’s growing influence and ambition.