Immigration advocates were trying to balance empathy with outrage the day after President Donald Trump said he has directed the Department of Homeland Security to create an office for victims of crimes committed by immigrants.
Trump said he has ordered the creation of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE to provide "a voice to those who have been ignored by our media, and silenced by special interests." He underscored during his speech his demand by spotlighting four victims of immigrants who committed crimes.
But advocates said Wednesday they saw the plan as political baiting and a continuation of the theme that Trump has seized on since the start of his campaign, with his statements about rapists and criminals coming from Mexico.
“People of course want to be respectful of someone who has lost a family member, who is a victim of crime,” said Angela Kelley, senior strategic adviser for immigration at the Open Society Policy Center.
“The concern is there seems to be a repeated pattern of the Trump administration to link immigrants with criminality, using the emotions that come along with family members who have lost a loved one,” Kelley said. “It’s bait we don’t want to take.”
While Trump's speech was largely praised as a departure from his rhetoric of the campaign and a softening of his tone, immigration advocates said they saw little departure from his hardline approach to immigration.
Trump included the order for the office in one of his immigration executive orders and had made crimes by immigrants not legally in the U.S. a campaign issue.
But his mention of it in a nationally televised speech got instant reaction. Although his supporters applauded, it also drew audible groans and boos from part of the congressional audience and some swift blowback on social media.
The idea was dismissed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, Wednesday morning.
"I think that office is ridiculous," Schumer, D-N.Y., said on CBS This Morning. "Obviously we want to go after criminals. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are law abiding...So to put an office like this out there shows how anti-immigrant this president is."
Maria Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of Voto Latino, said Trump’s speech was “the same dog whistle politics that got him elected.”
“He invited guests whose loved ones were victims of terrible tragedies, and we all share their pain. But to use that pain to create more fear by insinuating that all immigrants are criminals and murderers is un-American and dangerous,” Kumar said.
“Creating a DHS hotline, Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement, will only lead to further racial tension and profiling and will not make our country any safer,” she said.
Trump’s idea for such an office came from Maria Espinoza, director of the Remembrance Project.
Espinoza, who said she is not a victim of a crime by an immigrant, has been trying with her husband since 2012 to get offices and services dedicated to such crime victims. She wrote letters to every state governor and to four of the GOP candidates, including Trump. Only he responded, she said. She did not send a letter to Hillary Clinton.
What the group seeks sounds similar to what other crime victims have pressed for over the years: financial assistance with burial costs, medical and trauma services, compensation for lost wages and help navigating the criminal justice system, as well as legal assistance.
But Espinoza said the needs of victims she advocates for “cannot be handled the same” as those of other crime victims, because the perpetrators are illegally in the U.S. If they are here illegally they should be removed from the country” after serving their sentences.
DHS has programs in place designed to remove immigrants from the country as soon as their sentence has been served.
Espinoza is an opponent of so-called sanctuary cities that limit the extent local law enforcement will probe a person’s immigration status or restrict interaction with ICE with someone arrested for a minor crime. She also praised Trump's plan for a border wall.
“Right now we have a very open border,” Espinoza said.
There has been criticism of her group’s links to anti-immigrant groups and individuals, as reported in a 2015 article by Buzzfeed.
On its website, Espinoza's group calls for a fee on remittances - the money immigrants send to families in their home countries - to pay for the victims' assistance.
Danny Vargas, a Republican communications consultant, praised Trump's speech overall, saying he hoped it was a turning of a corner. But he was skeptical of the plan to create VOICE. He called it "red meat" Trump threw out to appease more zealous portions of the base.
The Office for Victims of Crime already exists in the Department of Justice. It was created by Ronald Reagan to focus on all types of crimes and all types of victims.
"It's complete and utter duplication and there's no need," Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, a non-profit group, said of Trump's VOICE plan.
“I’m not sure what this office would do or what services it would offer different than what is available at DOJ,” Fernandez said.
The department provides funding and technical assistance to organizations and determines how those can be used to best serve all victims of crime. It has conducted research and identified underserved communities that need special attention because they can’t access the resources that are out there, Fernandez said.
Studies show that criminal activity by immigrants is lower than by non-immigrants.
A program within DOJ for victims that are the focus of Trump's plan could be started if there is need, but Fernandez said data should be collected first to show how large the population is and what the victims' special needs are.
“I’m not sure why President Trump is creating a new office in a different department,” she said. “I think that’s going to create more bureaucracy.”
She acknowledged that getting compensation or services might be difficult, but she said that is true across the board for crime victims.
“There are lots of people looking at how to make compensation more accessible,” she said. But a new office with its own source of funding “would be wasted resources that are needed to get services to victims.”