The anonymous tipster had clearly done her homework. In a June 23 phone call to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she described a pair of “illegal aliens” from Mexico who had allegedly overstayed their visas. She reported their ages along with their first, middle and last names and the exact address of the San Jose home where she believed they were staying.
On July 21, a Bay Area man accused of domestic violence dialed up the ICE hotline. He urged government agents to deport his wife, who’d fled to a battered women’s shelter. The man dismissed the allegations as a ploy by his wife and her father—described as “a prominent attorney in the Philippines”—to obtain legal residency in the U.S.
These are just two examples of roughly 2,000 “tips” ICE listed on a call log compiled during the hotline’s first six months. Many of them were from callers who had only a passing acquaintance with people they suspected of being in the country unlawfully.
“Caller requested to report illegal aliens that are protesting in front of a high school in San Francisco,” reads the summary of a June 20 call.
“Caller requested to report an alleged criminal alien that he saw yesterday on the Bay Bridge,” an ICE operator noted on May 3.
When the Trump administration launched the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline in April, it billed the service as a way to help “victims of crimes committed by removable aliens.” On its website, the VOICE office expressly states that it’s “not a hotline to report crime.” But internal logs show that people have used the service to snitch on strangers, neighbors, colleagues and even their own family members.
“I think this confirms what we suspected about the hotline from the very beginning,” says Avantika Shastri, lead attorney for the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative, which helps clients throughout the Bay Area. “Basically, the whole point of the hotline is to perpetuate stereotypes about immigrants.”
To make matters worse, ICE inadvertently doxxed thousands of callers and the people they reported—including a few-dozen in the Bay Area—by publishing un-redacted call logs online. Government agencies typically black out identifying details from records before releasing them to the public. But ICE turned over its VOICE logs in raw form with highly sensitive personal information, including full names, social security numbers, addresses, workplaces and phone numbers.
Univision-backed Splinter News discovered the alarming breach of confidentiality by requesting the call logs through a Freedom of Information Act request. ICE handed over a redacted spreadsheet of the VOICE logs. But reporters later found out that the agency uploaded an un-redacted version to a library of FOIA documents on its official government website.
When alerted to the oversight, ICE responded by taking its entire archive of FOIA records offline. A week later, the library remained unavailable, and an error message on the agency’s website notes that it was “temporarily unavailable” pending review. ICE has yet to respond to San Jose Inside’s request for comment, but the online library—sans un-redacted call logs—has since been re-published online.
Both immigrant advocates and people who phoned the VOICE hotline have called the data breach a stunning display of incompetence. Shastri, whose organization has been helping families targeted by ICE in San Francisco County, says the leak raises questions about the efficacy and ostensible purpose of the VOICE hotline.
“It’s truly astounding that they put this all out there,” she says. “Obviously, this doesn’t serve anyone’s due process rights.”
While records show that some people protested the hotline’s existence by trolling operators with reports of extraterrestrial aliens, the majority of call summaries paint a bleak picture of a nation divided by fear and suspicion. In the half-year since ICE launched the service, people have volunteered themselves as informants and sought to involve federal immigration authorities in personal grievances and family disputes.
Some people called to give ICE dates of upcoming divorce court proceedings or to find out if a Spanish-speaking suspect in a criminal case was in the country unlawfully. One Bay Area caller shared information about his secretary, while another told authorities that he suspected his housemate and business partner of stealing money.
VOICE callers reached by San Jose Inside expressed shock upon learning that their complaints and identifying information had been exposed. When one woman dialed in to report an alleged assault in Berkeley, the VOICE operator appended the call summary with an assurance that “the information will be kept confidential, and she will be contacted by ICE within two business days.”
That turned out to be an empty promise.
“That’s pretty fucked up,” says the woman, who asked San Jose Inside to withhold her identity. “Some asshole decided that they wanted to post this online to make a political point, and where does that leave me?”
She declined to elaborate on the man she was trying to report, except to say that she suspected that he was in the country illegally because he was “mumbling in Spanish.”
Hamid Yazdan Panah, a local attorney who helps coordinate a very different kind of hotline, the Northern California Rapid Response Network, which aims to protect people from ICE, says the VOICE logs prove that the hotline is ideologically motivated. By the agency’s own admission, ICE enforcement has been politically driven against so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, which puts California and the South Bay in the crosshairs. Meanwhile, internal emails published by The Intercept show that ICE officials were told to highlight the “most egregious” cases in each region, while downplaying the fact that recent raids have included greater numbers of non-criminal and collateral arrests.
Yazdan Panah also notes that the VOICE service offers nothing new, and only refers callers to resources such as victim notification alerts. The hotline’s chief aim, he adds, is to perpetuate the notion that immigrants should be treated as a separate class.
"This program raises serious questions about whether ICE is making our neighborhoods safer, or dividing our communities,” Yazdan Panah says. “It seems like an extension of a policy to demonize and scapegoat immigrants.”
The result, he says: Victims are less likely to report crimes. In the first half of 2017, reports of domestic violence among Latinos in some of California’s biggest cities—including San Francisco and Los Angeles—have dropped. San Jose Inside has requested similar data from the San Jose Police Department, which has yet to compile the responsive statistics.
Immigrant advocates call the reluctance to report crimes a direct result of Trump’s ramped-up enforcement. In the first half of 2017, the number of ICE arrests surged by 37 percent, according to agency statistics. As a result, unions for ICE and border patrol agents have issued statements about surging morale while fear, distrust and unreported crime spreads throughout immigrant communities.
“We have seen the effects of these policies when victims of domestic violence are too afraid to contact authorities or go to court for fear or being reported,” Yazdan Panah says. “These policies not only destroy trust in our community, but will clearly target people of color and other vulnerable groups in our society.”
While ICE displayed blatant disregard for people’s privacy in the case of its VOICE hotline, the agency has failed to a number of other critical information requests. According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research center at Syracuse University, crisis is the new norm at ICE’s FOIA office.
“Answers to some requests are needlessly delayed in violation of timeliness requirements in the law,” TRAC found, according to an assessment last month. “The quality of some responses that requesters receive surely suffer in such an intense push to close cases. And the pressure on FOIA staff to cut corners to speed case closures can hardly make the office a desirable place to work.”
Just this week, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that he sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, because of its alleged failure to comply with several FOIA requests. Becerra’s office filed numerous records requests, including one for information about immigration arrests at schools, hospitals and places of worship and other “sensitive locations,” which were supposed to be safe from enforcement crackdowns.
“Federal authorities have a clear legal obligation to respond to our FOIA request,” Becerra said in a written statement. “The Trump administration’s secrecy tied to changes in its immigration enforcement practices is sowing confusion and increasing anxiety among immigrants. That’s why we’re asking the administration to be transparent to the public and tell us what it is doing in this area. As attorney general, I am committed to helping inform Californians about how federal policies have actually changed and how those changes affect their rights.”